Being a good listener—for example, as a family caregiver for aging parents—is one of the most critical, useful, yet difficult skills to master. When approached unconsciously, listening may look more like waiting for your turn to talk, or communications may fall into old patterns that don’t serve you. But when done with skill, practice, and intention, being a good listener is one of the most powerful ways to validate another human being—whether they are a spouse, family member, friend, or coworker.
3 types of listening
There are many types of listening—in the simplest terms, they break down into three types: passive listening, selective listening, and active listening. A passive listener may hear what is being said, but they aren’t putting much effort into understanding the message. In fact, you can passively listen to a conversation without even trying. A selective listener tunes in and out while someone is speaking. This is quite common—without giving the speaker their full attention, the listener is distracted by their own thoughts, tends to hear what they want to hear, and never fully processes the message as a whole.
Then there is active listening—the gold standard. These are the skills to work on, and they do not focus on offering a solution or even giving a reply. The primary goals of an active listener are to show the speaker they have your full attention, to take the time to absorb and understand what’s being said, to be empathic and encourage the speaker to keep talking, and—the most important result—make the speaker feel heard.
Why is active listening—as they say, using “two ears and one mouth”—so important? Because it enables you to:
- Build trust
- Affirm and validate others’ feelings and thoughts
- Lower defensiveness in others
- Open up to others’ ideas or opinions you may not have considered
- Encourage others, such as your children and aging parents, to talk more
- Improve morale in your family or workplace
- Build relationships based on mutual understanding
- Get to the root of a problem
- Feel like you are “on the same team”
- Create a safe environment for more useful information to be shared
How to become a better listener
- Be in the moment—no distractions, cell phones, tv, or computer screens.
- Watch body language—65 percent of communication can be nonverbal. Does their body language signal that this is a difficult or emotional topic?
- Empathize—show that you understand their feelings.
- Make eye contact.
- Respond to show you are listening (a nod, uh-hum, tell me more).
- Never interrupt or talk over someone; wait until they clearly have stopped talking.
- Allow pauses in the conversation to process what has been said. SILENCE IS GOLDEN, although hard sometimes.
- Stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and just listen.
- Ask open-ended questions to dig deeper and to clarify what has been said.
- Repeat what you think you heard, to make sure you got it right. This is called reflection.
Remember, to be a great listener, you do not have to agree with the speaker, nor solve their problems. Just make them feel heard by understanding where they are coming from and why. Sometimes the release of being able to express oneself and “talk it out” is all that is needed, and that can help your loved one or coworker figure things out for themselves.
My biggest lessons on listening
If I have learned anything about active listening as a social worker, administrator, wife, mother, and friend, the two things that have helped me the most—that I leave with you—are:
- People don’t need to “win” an argument or discussion. They need to feel heard.
- I have never learned anything from someone who agrees with me!