I’ve always considered myself a good listener. I still remember my mom praising me for achieving a perfect score on the listening comprehension portion of a standardized test in elementary school. Throughout high school and college, I prided myself on being the person friends would turn to when they needed to confide in someone. It was a role I took seriously, conscious of the scarcity of people who could claim to be good listeners.
But in the past few years, I’ve noticed that what was once a strength has become a weakness. I catch myself interrupting people all the time. My thoughts wander (and my eyes probably glaze over) when I’m not interested in what someone is saying. And I often focus so much on some tidbit, some witty zinger that I want to contribute, that I don’t even follow what the other person is saying.
That’s why when I found an article on what great listeners do, I jumped at the opportunity to try out some of these habits. I wanted to learn what are the hallmarks of a good listener, and vowed to implement those tips into a week of conversations to see what happened.
The article distilled the top qualities of listeners, debunking the idea that in order to be a good listener, one must be silent and then regurgitate the conversation by using phrases such as, “So what I’m hearing is…”. Instead, a good listener plays a much more active role in the conversation.
One should react and respond to what is being said, affirming, supporting, and even gently challenging the speaker when appropriate. The authors describe a good listener as being a trampoline that amplifies and lifts up the speaker and their ideas, rather than a sponge that just sits there and passively absorbs the conversation.
Yet what was most striking to me was the description of good listening as “the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.” This phrase immediately conjured an image of conversation as a safe haven, a resting place that I could create for whoever trusted me enough to confide in me.
I started to see listening as something more than a functional skill — it’s a transcendent dynamic each of us can bring to an encounter. I was determined to learn how to create an environment in which friends and family could share what was on their minds and in their hearts, knowing that it would be received with understanding and encouragement.
After reading the article’s insights, I decided to first observe how I normally listened in a conversation, and then to employ the tactics mentioned in the article. I came away with three major lessons, which I then attempted to employ throughout subsequent conversations.
Begin with curiosity
The first thing I noticed was that I typically enter into conversations with what can only be described as a critical mind. My brain is so busy looking for mistakes or identifying ridiculous statements that I don’t really absorb what the other person is saying. It’s like I’m hyper-focused on finding errors, rather than actually attending to what is being said.
I also realized that I tend to fixate on formulating a witty comeback when the other person is talking. But crafting a funny comment comes at the price of actually listening to what the other person is saying. Worrying about what I’m going to say next — and trying to interject into the other person’s speech — renders me unable to even follow the thread of the conversation.
I noticed that when I focused on my comeback, my contributions were not received with the enthusiasm I had envisioned. And so my first task became clear: listen with a gently curious and open mind.
I found that the easiest way to do this was to make the mental effort of letting go of preconceptions. Before engaging in conversation with a friend who tends to say what I think are absurd comments, I took a few minutes before calling her back to mentally prepare by contextualizing our conversation. I told myself, “She is going through a difficult time, so she’s seeing things in a different light. She needs me to listen, not to judge her.”
Giving myself this pep talk before engaging in conversation made me more receptive, less quick to judge, and more compassionate toward my friend. In turn, I noticed that she was less guarded and more open, and seemed happier at the end of the conversation. I discovered that taking this attitude helped me to be empathetic rather than judgmental — and that made a difference for my friend.
Though the article doesn’t explicitly express how important it is to let the speaker express themselves without interrupting, I quickly realized this was an area I needed to work on. Growing up in a big and loud Cuban family, interrupting was simply the way to get a point across in the joyful chaos of family dinner. Waiting for “your turn” to speak just meant you never got to say anything.
What I chalked up to a cultural difference is in fact a bad habit. As I thought about my goal of listening so as to create a welcoming and secure space, I realized that thoughtlessly interrupting bulldozes a conversation and takes away the speaker’s feeling of safety.
No matter how much I try to rationalize it, interrupting is nothing less than claiming that what you have to say is more important than what the other is saying. So my second takeaway was to allow the speaker the space and time to develop their thoughts.
Interrupting has proven to be a difficult habit to break, but the first step was identifying it as a harmful dynamic. This newfound awareness has pushed me to apologize in the instances when I do interrupt, which helps repair the relationship with the speaker.
In a conversation with my sister, I discovered that by making the effort to pause before speaking, I was able to control my impulse to butt in. As comments and suggestions formulated in my brain, I paused for a beat before deciding whether it was an appropriate moment to interject. At the end of the conversation, she genuinely thanked me for listening, and I felt truly happy that she had felt heard and supported.
Be fully present
The last thing I discovered during my week of listening is perhaps the most interesting: I learned to listen with the whole body. The article states that about “80% of what we communicate comes from ... nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals.”
As a mother to a very energetic toddler, I am rarely able to sit still during a conversation. Whether chatting to another mom at the park or talking to my husband at the end of the day, I am literally always doing something: chasing my daughter, wiping the counters, folding laundry, etc.
During a conversation with my mom, I decided to implement the article’s suggestion and sat still. I put my phone away, stopped trying to clear off the kitchen table, and physically turned toward my mom as she spoke.
I observed that once I put the distractions away, my body naturally turned toward her. I started nodding in agreement to what she said, and my arms relaxed by my sides. My eyes swept across her face as she spoke, and I instinctively reached for her hands to affirm her. I was listening with my whole body.
The experience resonated with the authors’ assertions that listening in this way “not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.”
I won’t pretend that one week of intentionally implementing what I learned has transformed me into a great (or even good) listener. I still struggle with interrupting. I’m often critical and too quick to offer solutions or suggestions. The distractions inherent in my state in life make it very difficult to fully attend to a conversation. Yet I have grown to understand what is at the essence of being a good listener: creating safety and rest for the person who has trusted you with their confidence.
Truly listening to another acknowledges their dignity and affirms their personhood. Without saying a word, good listening habits tell people, “You matter enough for me to lavish time and attention on you.”