How to be a Good Listener
I’m an advocate for deep conversations. I love exploring ideas and talking about books and faith and interesting concepts that I’ve read about lately. But I also like hearing other people’s stories. I want to know how a couple met or what made someone decide to be a dentist or how you learn how to make knives.
Finding everyday stories can be a fascinating exercise. In order for me to get to a place where other people are opening up and sharing fascinating stories, I have to be in my best listening mode. I don’t always get to that place.
When I’m being a good listener, I remember to practice good listening techniques. When I am not practicing those things, well, I’m probably just wanting my turn to talk.
Let’s look at a few good listening practices:
Eye contact can be rather intimate. I’ve even felt creepy when someone has looked at me too intently when I am talking. The attention makes me wonder if I have a fleck of black pepper in between my teeth.
But eye contact is actually the easiest way to give someone their dignity. When I am listening, I focus in on the person talking, and I ask them to keep talking with my eyes. Even if the person doesn’t want to open up about something, eye contact let’s them know you are available and willing to listen.
When I am listening well, I am giving others ample to time to say what they need to say. My husband and I have a phrase that we use with each other, and it comes up frequently when we are in conflict: I need you to listen longer.
"I need you to listen longer" means giving each other time and space to flesh things out loud. You aren’t just waiting for your turn to talk. You have to absorb what is being said. And you can’t just sit around, waiting to jump on the next breath to throw your words into the mix. You have to allow that person the time and space to explain.
I’ve sat in many a classroom, meeting, collaboration room, and I’ve moderated rooms like this as well. Those kinds of rooms need white space. White space is used in design, so it’s usually a visual term. But I think of white space in sound terms as well.
White Space is simply times of silence to allow people to think and process. If you are a talker, this is especially hard - to allow quiet space to fill up precious seconds when you could be talking.
Yet, white space provides people a chance to talk who might not otherwise. It allows conversations to blossom. It allows people to process what was said before. It’s a good practice to pause before inserting more noise.
Follow Up Questions
If you bump on something that someone says, ask a follow up question. If you find something interesting, acknowledge it and probe further. If you can’t think of a question, then you can go back to the steps of listening longer. Maybe you didn’t understand what was being said.
Change Your Face
I say this to my kids a lot when they aren’t taking directives well or when they have a sibling who is trying to talk to them or when they are angry and “listening” at the same time.
Change your face when you listen. Don’t show anger or a “you have dumb ideas” face. Open up your face and allow processing to happen. Don’t jump to conclusions with your eyebrows. Give people a blank canvas, a safe spot to verbally process.
Do you have other tricks that make you a better listener? Let me hear them.