Good listening skills are some of the most underrated and crucial tools to helping people feel heard and valued. Being a good listener takes practice, just like any skill, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Lucky for you, Ashlie Lund-Richardson, LCSW, LAC, program manager at WellPower’s Wellshire Behavioral Services, is here to help with five tips on becoming a better listener.
1) Body language matters
The body language we show in a conversation with other people has a big impact on whether they feel heard and listened to. While specific body language can vary across cultures, there are a few key indicators to keep in mind:
- Eye contact. For many people, eye contact is a major way to show you’re listening to what they’re saying. This may vary depending on the individual, and letting someone know ahead of time if eye contact is uncomfortable or a sign of disrespect in your culture can help avoid misunderstandings.
- Relaxed, open posture. Avoid crossing your arms and turning away from the person you’re speaking with. An open posture signifies to the other person that you’re open to hearing what they have to say.
- Neutral facial expression. Openly reacting with negative facial expressions can quickly show your conversation partner that you’re not ready or willing to hear them. Practice kind, neutral facial expressions to signify you’re ready and willing to listen without judgment.
2) Verbal cues make a difference
“I know I am listening effectively when I can validate or observe with them what I am hearing from them,” said Lund-Richardson. “I may paraphrase what they’ve said, use phrases like ‘I see’ or ‘I hear you’ or even just nod and say, ‘Mm-hmm.’”
The key to using verbal cues effectively is to keep the conversation focused on the other person, rather than centering your own experience. Try using phrases like:
- “What I’m hearing you say is…”
- “It sounds like you’re feeling…”
- “That seems really…”
3) Keep it judgment-free
Being able to have a conversation without judgment can take time, especially if the topic is something you feel strongly about or your opinion is different from the person with whom you’re speaking. Mental Health First Aid, a course that teaches adults how to help others with mental health challenges and connect them with resources, teaches participants to ask the following questions regarding nonjudgmental listening:
- Are you prepared to express concern without judgment?
- Are you the best person to help this person?
- Can you invest the appropriate amount of time in a conversation right now?
Listening nonjudgmentally helps people feel heard, understood and acknowledged. It may also be the very thing that sets the tone for any future conversations and can impact whether someone feels comfortable coming back to you to talk again.
4) Minimize or eliminate distractions
“Some things that can help us become better listeners are being thoughtful of when and where we are having important conversations,” said Lund-Richardson. “For example, if I have kids running around me or I am doing the dishes, I am naturally going to be more distracted.
“That is understandable and true for many of us, but if it’s an important conversation and the person needs to feel heard by me, I might consider moving to a quiet room, not having my cell phone near me and I would try to maintain eye contact and open body language while listening.”
If you can’t find the time or space to have a distraction-free conversation in that moment, letting the other person know that you care for them and want to talk, then offering a different time when you know you’ll be fully available can be a great alternative.
5) Express empathy
Ultimately, most people want to feel heard, valued and connected to loved ones. Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person – fosters connection and safety in our relationships.
Part of being a good listener is approaching conversations from an empathetic and validating point of view.
“I strongly believe most of us value feeling heard and, in many ways, need it when we are struggling, or even when we are celebrating or excited about something,” said Lund-Richardson. “Having someone hear what we are saying allows for us to have a real conversation and helps us feel more validated in our experience. I think this area is crucial when it comes to our well-being, as well as supporting our mental health.”