Good listeners are surprisingly rare. Hearing people and properly listening to them are two separate processes and unfortunately, the two don’t coincide particularly often.
The key ingredient of good listening is the providing of support. That is not to say that the listener agrees unconditionally with everything that the speaker is saying. Rather, it involves investing time in the speaker and making use of empathy to try to understand him or her. Listening is something we all take for granted, but listening well is a skill, and one that requires energy and dedication.
Are you as good a listener as you think you are? Perhaps you feel you show empathy by relating personal experience into your conversations? But being too quick to turn the conversation onto your own experiences (even if it is done with the genuine eagerness to prove we too have those feelings!) can actually make you appear to be a bore or self-obsessed.
Your Presence Is Required
The first key point for good listening is to stay present. Be part of a conversation, not two sparring monologues. There isn’t much worse than a “listener” who makes all the right noises whilst simply waiting for a break in the conversation to erupt into an autobiographical ramble. It is unpleasant to be speaking and become aware that the “listener” is just itching for us to stop so they can explode into a monologue. As opposed to this, a good listener is reactive: reacting to the stimuli provided by the speaker. Poor listening limits friendships; people will subconsciously or consciously decide not to come to you to talk about certain things, diminishing your wealth of human interactions.
So, listening attentively is the first lesson. Employ questions sparingly, as prompts and to show you are reacting to the speaker’s words. Body language is also essential. A wandering eye implies boredom, so keep your focus! It is important not to give judgements or respond with your thoughts too early in the conversation, if at all. You don’t know when someone has got to the crux of what they want to talk about – they may spend a long time warming up before they feel they can speak what’s really on their mind.
A subsidiary point to this is that it is helpful to sum up, to the speaker, in your own words what you think are their key points. It shows you’re listening and checks if you’re on the right track: they may say, “Well, not exactly, it’s more like…”
Relating Your Experiences
To be a good listener you must know when the focus is, and should remain on, the other person. When this is the case personal experiences should only be used as an occasional tool to display empathy and your experiential credentials (if you deem this necessary at all). There are occasions when your experience can be used as a learning tool for the other person (they can learn from your mistakes) but you must remember that your experiences must only be mentioned if they have a firm relevance.
Talking Solves Problems
Talking, a great deal of the time, involves problem solving. Despite this, it’s good to be wary of giving advice too freely – in all but the times when you are one hundred percent sure of your convictions (and even then you may subsequently find you were wrong). The truly important thing about becoming a good listener is not to underestimate the power of the conversation process itself. It is cathartic. On top of this, your friend might very well be able to untangle his or her thoughts just through speaking to you. The speaking process intrinsically requires clarity of thought and so does much of the work.
A Return on Your Investment
There’s no doubt about it, listening to a friend with problems requires an input of time and energy. That is why some people just don’t want to hear. However, making that life choice to be a good listener is a valuable decision. Being a good listener can pay a number of dividends as relationships and friendships grow and, through mutual respect, comfort in sharing intimacies increase.
Of course there are exploitative one-sided friendships and it is your judgement to walk away if feel you are in one of these. However, sometimes you just need to be there for someone. As a good listener, you will also find more people happy to hear your problems and thoughts. It is impossible to unlink our own welfare from others’ and so, ultimately, making the decision to be a sensitive and supportive listener is a decision to increase the quality of your own life.