How to Be a Great Listener
If I had to pick one skill that has helped me be a more successful leader, colleague and family member, it would be listening.
The benefits of being a great listener are huge.
Not only do you learn more when you listen instead of talk, listening is a core ingredient of forming trusted relationships – the kind that last through challenging times as well as good.
When people feel completely listened to, it satisfies a basic human instinct – the need to feel seen, heard and valued. Being able to help people feel that way puts you in a very special category.
And when you’re a great listener, people will want to talk to you again.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t listen well.
But the good news is it’s a skill you can develop and even master although it will take some conscious effort and commitment to build the habit.
Before I tell you how, there’s something you need to know.
The three kinds of listening
In my experience, there are three kinds of listening and most people only know the first two.
Listening to Respond
This is the kind of listening most of us come across at work. I know this one well because I’ve been guilty of it myself.
It’s when you’re looking at the speaker but thinking about what points you want to make. You’re not really paying attention except to see when you can jump back into the conversation.
Since most people recognize when others are listening only to respond, you don’t get much credit for this kind of listening. It won’t help you win over clients, build relationships with your colleagues, or endear you to your family.
Listening to Comprehend
This is where you’re paying attention enough to understand what the other person is saying, but no more.
It’s functional listening – a little like Dr. Spock on Star Trek who’s focused on the content and the data. Although he asks clarifying questions and may even nod and agree, he can miss the point because he overlooks the nuance of full human interaction.
In the case of a good friend’s husband, he can be staring at his computer screen yet still repeat back what his wife has said word for word when she asks, “are you even listening to me?”
While listening to comprehend is better than listening to respond, it still leaves people feeling unsatisfied. Worse yet, they’re likely to feel that you don’t fully respect or care about them.
Listening to Connect
The best kind of listening is when you are paying complete attention to the other person. That means listening in such a way that the other person feels heard and understood.
I think of this as “listening to connect” and it’s about how your listening lands with others. It’s not about you.
When you achieve this level of connected listening, marvelous things can happen.
Your colleagues feel respected and you build trusted relationships.
Your family members feel how much you care.
Your reputation as a leader, partner and colleague rises because you’re able to connect with people at a level that they experience all too rarely.
When you consistently listen and connect to others in this complete way, you open up new possibilities for yourself, your family, your team, and your organization. That’s because none of us succeeds alone, and the bigger your mission in life, the more you need others to work with you, not against you.
How to Listen to Connect
If listening to connect is the gold standard, then the question is how to achieve that.
Here are four steps that I’ve found can help.
1. Pay full attention
People sense when they have your full attention, so give it to them from the start and do so willingly.
This means listening not just with your ears, but also through your body language, eye contact, and absence of distractions. So, put aside your papers, put away your devices, and turn toward the other person.
Most importantly, become fascinated by what they are about to say.
2. Don’t interrupt
Allow the person the luxury of finishing their thoughts.
When they pause, resist the temptation to jump in right away with a comment or question. Instead, allow for the pause in case they have more to say – I find taking a full breath is a great way to fill the pause.
3. Express genuine curiosity
If you sense they still have something to say or if you need to learn more, ask a follow up question that helps explore further. For example, “tell me more?” or “can you share an example?” or “I wonder when XYZ tends to happen most often?”.
By inviting them to tell you everything they feel the need to convey, you allow them to feel seen, heard and respected.
4. Respond in a way they feel understood
When it’s your turn to speak, respond in a way that makes them feel validated.
If you know the other person well, it’s easier to identify the words and phrases that will resonate. Otherwise, the fact that you’re paying complete attention will allow you to pick up their signals and respond appropriately.
When they’ve come to you for advice on an issue, a great way to do this is to paraphrase what they’ve said. For example, “I’d like to make sure I’ve understood – what I’m hearing is that you’re concerned about X because of Y and you’re thinking of doing Z.”
On the other hand, if they just want you to listen without trying to solve their problem, then it might work better to express empathy. For example, “That must be hard” or “I know how hard you’ve worked on X – I can see how frustrating this must be for you.”
Be the best listener you can be
If this sounds like hard work, you’re not alone. When I first started working on my listening skills, it was frustrating to hold myself back from interrupting. And it was tiring to be on my best behavior for so much of the day.
So don’t worry if you can’t do it all the time. Not every situation requires “listening to connect”. The key is to determine when it will move the needle for you.
Instead, give yourself permission to ease into it. Start by choosing a few situations where you want to deepen your relationship with someone. And as you get more attuned to being that great listener, you can extend your listening skills to more situations.
The key is to keep working on it.
The goal is progress, not perfection.
So get started, and then just keep going.
Now, it’s over to you:
What kind of listener are you, and who do you want to be a great listener for?
Leave a comment and let me know.
Many thanks May for a well written and thoughtful post. I really enjoyed reading it and I will have to
give it some practice. I do now turn away from my computer to listen intently to my wife. I will keep
up the challenge instead of interrupting people.
The two most effective eliciting phrases that I use when listening are: How’s that? & Sounds like you ____________ (feel, think, want, etc.). Nice article, May.
Thanks for sharing your most effective eliciting phrases, Karen!
Excellent article!!! Thanks for sharing this! I will certainly try to be a great listener from now on!
Thanks for the article May. What would you do if the other person wants you to bad-mouth another person as a way for you to show comfort/empathy towards the mistreatment she has received? You want to show you are empathetic towards her experience but at the same time don’t want to bad-mouth the other person given you don’t know exactly what has happened….
Great question, Shin. I find that it’s important to trust your instincts and honor your values, especially in situations like the one you describe.
You can empathize with her on the spot during your conversation by saying that you can understand why she feels upset/mistreated/ frustrated. But if you’re not comfortable going beyond that (and I can see why you wouldn’t be), don’t do it. In my experience, badmouthing others behind their back is rarely a successful strategy and it can easily backfire.
The question then is what to say to your friend. One way is to explain that you are here to provide support to her directly when she needs it. But for her own sake, it’s important that she finds a way to stand up for herself. That’s what builds confidence and resilience in a person. And you’ll be happy to help bolster her confidence to speak up.
Instead, when someone in your friend’s situations lets others do their bidding, it reinforces a victim’s mindset because someone else (in this case you) has to come in and “save” or protect her.
You might also ask her what her goal is in asking you to badmouth the person. Then helping her find a better way to achieve that goal than having you spread information about something you haven’t seen directly, and therefore can’t be credible about.
More broadly, the way to stop someone from treating people badly is to confront them. The person may not even realize they’ve hurt your friend’s feelings. And the best person to confront them is the one who feels wronged, backed by emotional support from friends like you.
Hope that helps, and looking forward to hearing what you decide to do.