Listening Skills

Is Anybody Listening?
Noah M. Collins, M.S.

Have you talked about a problem with friends, only to have them change the focus of the conversation onto themselves? Perhaps they have had a similar problem and they start telling you about it. Sure, sometimes we want to know that our friends have the same experiences that we do, but sometimes we just want someone to listen.

What does listening really mean? Truly listening means that we are focused on the speaker and what they are saying, rather than on our own thoughts. A good listener works to truly understand a speaker's experience and point of view. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. If we really think about it, there are very few occasions in which we are truly listened to in any given day.

So what do we get out of listening? There are a number of benefits. When a speaker (it could be a friend, a partner, a co-worker, or a family member) gets the message that you are really trying to understand what they are saying, they will feel safer with you. This trust will allow themself to express themselves more freely and honestly with you. In this safe environment, the speaker may be able to come to their own solutions if they have a problem. Listening can also be an important first step toward resolving a conflict between you and the speaker. Being this kind of listener shows respect to another person. All these things can add up to a deepening of the relationship, making it more gratifying and supportive. Also, if you really listen to a person, it increases the chances that they will do the same for you.

How can we learn to become better listeners? There are some simple things we can do that will help a great deal. The first is to work on what our body is doing when we are listening. Many of us have heard that non-verbal communication is important, and this is also true when we are not the one talking. Your body should send a message that you are available to listen. You should be relaxed and comfortable. Try to stand or sit in a manner that is natural for you. When we look tense we look distracted and not open to the conversation. Of course, you don't want to appear so relaxed that you don't appear to care. Eye contact with the speaker, and nodding occasionally can send the message that you are focused on the speaker and following what they are saying. At the same time, these cues can have different messages for different people and different cultures, so it is good to use them with discretion. Nodding vigorously and pegging the speaker with a fixed glare are not inviting non-verbal cues.

But what can we say when we are listening? Once again, there are a few simple things that we can do to make speakers feel heard. One of these things is to paraphrase. This means saying back to the speaker what they said, but in a more concise manner. Be economical in your responses and don't go beyond what the speaker has said. Also, try to mirror to the speaker the most meaningful part of what they said. Try to get to the heart of what they are trying to communicate. Here are some examples of paraphrase responses:

Speaker: "I don't know about him. One day he can be very nice, and the next day he'll be rude to me."

Listener: "He seems pretty inconsistent to you." or "It sounds like you don't know how he's going to act."

Remember, the idea is to get at what their experience and meaning is, not yours. Sometimes, we may not capture the speaker's meaning, but this is fine because it gives the speaker an opportunity to correct you. In doing so, the speaker can fill you in on what is most important to them in what they are trying to communicate. For example, let's say that the listener's responses in the above example aren't accurate. The speaker might correct, saying, "You know what the real problem is. I just don't trust him." The listener's first response, although not right on, communicates the message that the listener is putting effort into understanding the speaker, and this encourages the speaker to go deeper and explain what they really mean. This is the purpose of paraphrasing and listening.

These techniques might sound a little contrived and, well, technique-like, and it may feel unnatural at first. Try them sparingly at first and observe their effect. You might find that the response is positive and that using these listening techniques may become more and more natural for you.

If you need someone to listen to you, contact Counseling Services at 256-782-5475.

Courtesy of California State University, Hayward