How to be a Better Listener

We all go through stuff. One thing that’s certain in life is that we’ll face some challenges that may be difficult to handle or get through. Similarly, we tend to lean on those closest to us for support and to feel less alone. As social creatures, people need support through ups and downs. When I work with clients, I ask about their social support network to address any risk of isolation or withdrawal, coping skills, and self care. On occasion, I hear complaints that friends, partners or family members have good intentions but miss the mark on offering helpful support.

Here are some Do’s/Don’ts on how to be a better listener, be more supportive and connect better with those you care about.

  1. DO: Identify the request. When someone shares a complaint, concern or problem, consider what they may need from you. Do they just want to vent? Are they asking for problem solving assistance? Do they want a solution but aren’t quite ready to decide how to solve the problem? If you can’t tell, ask them directly. You can simply say, “I can tell this is bothering you. How can I help?”. Let them answer with what they need from you. If your job is to just listen, then don’t offer any solutions.
  2. DO: Listen with expression, body language and words. Don’t interrupt. Make eye contact, try to understand what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not about your opinion of what they’re going through, it’s about their experience. Set aside your opinion unless the person specifically asks for it (ex: if you hear, “what would you do?”, “how do I fix this?”, etc). Once the person has shared their concern, your first response should reflect what you heard. This validates their thoughts and feelings and lets them know you understand and heard them. For example, “It seems like you’re worried about making a mistake”.
  3. DON’T: Dismiss their feelings. This is the number one complaint I hear about support gone wrong. Never say things like, “don’t worry about it”, “it’ll all work out”, “I’m sure it’ll be fine”, “things happen for a reason,” “if it’s meant to be, it will be”, etc. This can be hurtful and confusing. The person will begin to doubt their thoughts, feelings and experiences and stop trusting themselves. They may feel guilt or shame. Instead, just try to understand their problem that’s important to It doesn’t have to be a big deal to you, but it is to your loved one and that matters!
  4. DON’T: Start talking about a similar problem you have. Sure, you may have gone through a similar situation. That doesn’t mean it’s time to talk about it. It may have taken a bit of courage for someone to share something vulnerable, so be kind and just listen. The exception to this tip is if the person has asked to hear about your problem and what you did. If that request is absent, don’t assume they want it.
  5. DO: Offer only what you’re able to. If the concern is too overwhelming for you, triggers your own pain, or puts you in the middle of an uncomfortable conflict, set a boundary. If you’re able to listen without bias, just continue to validate their concern and ask what they need. If it’s too much to handle or you think the person may be at risk (are in an abusive relationship, or could hurt themselves or someone else), suggest they seek professional help. Helping them find a doctor or therapist may be the best way to help.

Typically more discussion is sparked once I start talking about these techniques with clients. If there’s interest in practicing better listening skills, I work with clients to rehearse and apply communication strategies specific to their concerns.

The strategies I recommend most for better communication are on assertive styles. If you’d like to learn more, contact me, or find a therapist in your area who utilizes these techniques.