How to Listen Well

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Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of talking to someone that is clearly not listening. The person you are speaking with may be nodding their head, but mentally they are somewhere else. Despite our attempts to justify our friend’s preoccupation or lack of interest it still hurts.

Not only have I talked with people who are bad listeners but I I have been one as well. Sometimes I get distracted. I may think I’m listening to the other person, but I’m not giving them my full attention. This happens especially in the evening with my family when I am trying to get dinner ready or am tidying the house. Other times, when I am with friends I’ve let my phone, other people in the room, or what I am going to say next prevent me from paying attention.

What does it look like to listen to one another in a way that makes us feel heard and fully seen?

Obviously being present is not enough. A good listener listens with their heart, their eyes, and their body language. When they do, others feel safe and can relax and share honestly. This is a tremendous gift we can give each other.

I first heard about active listening in March of 2016 at the Circles of Faith event we hosted called Your Story, Your Influence. The purpose of the event was to walk the attendees through discovering and telling their stories. To equip us for the process, Susanne Ciancio spoke about the difference between terrible listening and good listening and how we can listen well to others.

Here’s what I learned:

Examples of bad listening:

Interrupting -  This is the worse communication habit ever. When we interrupt people, we are telling them the conversation is all about us. Don’t be fooled by thinking, “I just have to say this now, or I'll forget.” If it’s essential to the conversation, you’ll remember it later.

Advising - Unsolicited advice is a relationship killer. Sometimes people just want to express their frustrations or feelings, but we’re quick to jump in to fix it. Wait to be asked before you give advice. The person you are speaking with will be much more appreciative of your wisdom when you do.

Over relating - It makes us feel connected when we can relate to a friend’s story, however highjacking the conversation to let them know you know exactly what they are talking about is rude. It’s okay to wait until they are done speaking to tell them you’ve had a similar experience.

Anticipating - Instead of listening we may be formulating our next sentence, rebuttal, or response. Thinking about what you're going to say next prevents us from being in tune with the other person because in our mind we have shifted the focus off them and onto us.

Ways to listen well:

Give eye contact. This might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth doing. When you keep eye contact with the person, who is talking it indicates that you are focused and paying attention. If possible, don’t look over their shoulder to see what else is going on around you.

Use body posture. Sit up straight, with your shoulders squared to the speaker. Lean into the conversation when needed.

Make facial expressions. Nod occasionally and smile. Mirroring the different expressions of the speaker shows sympathy and empathy in more emotional situations.

Eliminate distractions. Put phones, books, and iPads away when talking with someone. Social media and texts can wait.

Once you’re done listening, you can ask questions to further the conversation.

Examples of active listening questions are:

“Can you tell me more about…”

“I heard you say....could you tell me more?”

“What struck me about your story was…”

“How did you come out of that?”  

Keep in mind, most conversations with a co-worker, friend, or family member requires social skills. It’s meant to be a back and forth exchange.

Even though these steps may be obvious, for many, myself included, they are often forgotten. However, with a bit of intentionality and practice, these practices will become second hand. The people in our life will no longer wonder if we are paying attention or care about what matters to them.

Listening well is the way we can make others feel heard and fully seen.


For more on the topic listen to:

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Episode 62 Susanne Ciancio on How to be a Good Listener

Join Elise Daly Parker and I as we talk with Licensed Professional Christian Counselor, Susanne Ciancio about the difference between listening and hearing and how we can better listen to the people in our lives.