5 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Bernstein‘s work in the Wall Street Journal, and she wrote an interesting piece, How Well Are You Listening? We’re naturally bad listeners, even with loved ones; steps to avoid burn-out.

Here are some of the key steps she outlines, for being a better listener:

1. Look for hints that a person wants to talk — and signal your willingness to listen. My husband rarely wants to “talk,” but when he does, I put my book down flat in my lap, to show that I’m paying close attention (and to prevent myself from sneaking a look at the page).

2. Let the other person explain what’s on his or her mind. Acknowledge the reality of someone else’s feelings. For me, this is a key step. When I started to acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings, especially the negative feelings of my children, I saw a major improvement in communication.  I remind myself: don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the other person’s point of view. “You don’t feel like going.” “You’re bored.” “Usually, you enjoy this, but right now you’re not in the mood.”  This is harder than it sounds.

3. Encourage the person to elaborate by asking about open-ended questions, making listening noises (turns out these are called “minimal encouragers”), sitting in a way that shows attentiveness, making eye contact.

4. Paraphrase what someone said, to show that you’ve understood his or her point.

5. Ask questions and listen to try to help work on a possible solution — but don’t rush to fix things.

When it comes to the issue of listening well, the best book I’ve ever read on the subject is framed as a parenting book, but the advice it contains applies equally well to adults. I love this book: Faber and Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. I’ve read it several times.

But speaking of books, here’s a mistake I find myself making over and over: when someone’s trying to explain some problem to me, I respond by making suggestions of books for that person to read.

Practically everything in life reminds me of something I’ve read, and when people are in a difficult situation, I’m often flooded with thoughts about relevant passages I’ve read, or books that might be useful.

For instance, a friend just told me about her divorce, and I kept saying things like, “You should read Crazy Time, several people have told me what a great book that is when you’re getting a divorce.” Another friend was going through a truly staggering series of tragedies, and I couldn’t help sending her quotations that seemed relevant.

On the one hand, I’m sure my friends know that this is my idiosyncratic way of showing love, and trying to be helpful, but on the other hand, I know I should be quiet and listen, and not keep saying “Read this, read that!” Next time, I will hold myself back. I vow.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you be a better listener?

  • Listening that’s hard work and requires practice to be good at. Picking up on you comment on always responding with a book, one piece of guidance I heard but have struggled to implement (I did say listening was hard) is that to be really listening you shouldn’t be thinking of what you’re going to say next.
    Obvious really but incredibly difficult as most of us have trained ourselves to do the opposite. Bit of habit change required!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, exactly.

    • Katie Kelly

      So, so true. It is very hard to listen without trying to craft your response. Sometimes, they truly just want a one-way conversation, e.g. “get it off their chest” vs. advice.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Listening—real listening—is one of the hardest communication skills to practice and improve. But it’s the key to effectiveness in business and happiness in personal relationships so well worth the effort. Your five tips are fabulous! The only other idea I’d toss out is that if I can keep focused on the fact that what someone else is telling me is ‘just information’ to absorb in the moment, I can focus and absorb it better. Often I find myself listening with half my brain because I’ve already decided that this bit of opinion is future fodder for an argument, and I’m working on the defense plan…or that feeling is a judgment or request for me to do something different, and I’m working on a plan of action…and on and on. If I mentally defer the need for response or judgment of any kind by assuring myself that what the other person is saying is simply information to use later…my entire brain and heart are open to receive it all.

  • Constance

    If you’re a good listener, people will actually believe you’re a great conversationalist – and you don’t even have to say much!

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  • Katie

    Love these tips! My favorite phrase when you sense someone wants to talk but needs some time to think: “When you’re ready to talk about it, I’d love to listen.”

  • Oh, I’m like you about books/quotes!

    One “rule” I have for myself when someone is talking to me about a problem and I’m not sure if they are venting or wanting actual help is that I say, “I might be able to think of some ideas for you to help with that. Let me know if you want me to spend some time thinking about it.” That puts the ball in their court and they have to ask themselves, “*Do* I want advice or am I just expressing frustration?” If they ask for help/advice, they will be much more willing to listen to it and consider it. If all they wanted was a listening ear/shoulder to cry on, then I haven’t made myself a busybody.

  • Nanci Jordan

    The largest mistake that I believe people have when they listen is that they turn the conversation to become about their experiences. Its a key to keep the conversation about what the other person is feeling. You can do this with empathy instead of advice.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Open ended questions and making eye contact work for me! Also, sometimes, I just hug my husband while he is sad or mad and wants to vent! LOL

    Thanks for these ah-mazing tips, dear Gretchen! #HUGS


  • Abby

    My problem is that I am too good of a listener, if there is such a thing. Friends will call and talk with me for hours at a time, and I often feel like a captive as they pour their heart out, vent, complain, or just share the most mundane events of their lives. I often feel like I’m being used, but I don’t have the skills to stop them, or encourage them to have a more two-sided conversation, or at least a shorter one! Gretchen, I would love to have your take on this. Needless to say, I’m an obliger, but I wish I could be more of a questioner or rebel in this instance.

    • PolarSamovar

      It’s not rude or unkind to tell people what you want and to assert your boundaries. If these people really care about you, they don’t actually want to bore you or use you; but they won’t know if you don’t tell them. (Kindly, but clearly.)

      If they truly don’t care that they’re boring you or wasting your time, you might consider whether they are good friends to have.

  • Cindy

    Thanks for sharing these much-needed reminders, Gretchen! My first inclination is always to immediately try to help, and “fix” things — thinking about and suggesting all the things I’ve read, seen on the web, etc. that I think would be helpful. Thanks for making me take a look at my listening skills!

  • As I was reading the first part, I was preparing to recommend the “How to Talk so…” books. Then I saw you mention it. Then you discussed recommending books to people! So funny.

  • PolarSamovar

    Heh, I push books too.

    The best way I have found to be a good listener is to keep a journal. When I feel centered and have clarity about my own thoughts and feelings, it’s easier to settle and make plenty of space for the other person in the room.

    I’ve tried to cultivate friends who are also good listeners. I don’t feel like I have to demand attention. I can be still and listen, because when it’s my turn to talk, I have faith that I will be heard.

    In my childhood family culture, it was rude to ask people direct questions about personal topics – that was prying. I was in my 40s before I learned that when people drop small hints about something, they’re asking you to ask them about it. Most people don’t want to blurt out personal stuff without knowing whether you want to hear it.

    These days, I’m practicing listening for hints and following up.

  • Justin- Think LInk Clink

    This is fantastic Gretchen! I love how you said paraphrase because I believe people love hearing their own words said back to them. I hope you and daughter are well along in your seasons of friends!

  • Jeanne

    Every day on our evening walk, my husband tells me about his day (after I ask). This usually takes about half an hour of the 90 minute walk. He is an electronics tech and spends his day laying fiber optic cable, figuring out electrical problems, etc. I always ask him to keep things as non-technical as possible so I can understand what he’s talking about, but he always gets way over my head anyway, cause these things don’t seem “technical” to him. They are routine. I try very hard to stay with him and not just let my mind wander. As he goes on and on, and I barely know what he’s talking about, I remember how very much I love him, and how lucky I am to have such a wonderful husband who wants to talk to me and who adds so much to my life. This helps me stay there with him. I really have a challenge with my brother who will go into half hour monologues practically without taking a breath. I have to scream to get a word in, and then he thinks “oh, we’re screaming now” and starts screaming back if I say more than 3 words. Yikes! With him, I think about how looking back, will I feel like I should have listened with compassion and feel bad that I didn’t. That helps me hang in there.

  • Looby

    I lot of people have told me a am a very good listener which I attribute to the years I spent conducting qualitative research in healthcare.
    It takes practice to be a good listener, paraphasing is a great place to start; if you imagine that you will have to summarise what someone is telling you to someone else you will realise you have to pay a lot more attention than usual.
    When I worked in qualitative research the best advice I got was “be the person most comfortable with silence” this has served me well in all other aspects of my life. So often we take a pause in conversation as an opportunity to leap in with suggestions when really the other person talking may be gathering their thoughts as often talking is just a way for them to work through their issues/ problems and our input is not always necessary.

  • Annie9656

    “But speaking of books, here’s a mistake I find myself making over and over: when someone’s trying to explain some problem to me, I respond by making suggestions of books for that person to read.”

    Hah, this is my problem! I’ma library para in a large charter school. One of my student assistants, when I responded to something he said by saying, “I have just the book for you!” told me, You know a book for everything.” I was flattered and said “thank you,” whereupon he said, “Actually, I think it’s pathological.” 😉

  • Stu

    Covey’s habits include “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. It’s a weird reverse logic like the Bible’s “seek first God’s wishes, His will, His Kingdom, and your needs will be taken care of”. I have found that I get a richer mutual understanding if I go hard at trying first and foremost to understand the other person. Of course this makes you pay attention. But it’s the motive that helps me.

  • Natalie

    In regard to point 1, my mum used to put her book down and take off her reading glasses to show she was paying attention to me. I hated it! So much pressure! I really hated being stared at, it made me very uncomfortable. So it depends who you are talking to. A teenager who wants to talk might prefer no eye contact, less focus. In the car can be good because you are both facing forward. Or watching TV or something. Fishing. In the animal world, staring is threatening. And teenagers are animals.

  • Katie Kelly

    Well one thing I learned you should NOT do, and this was long long ago – in my early career days. Never try to insert a similar situation you may have experienced. It may seem helpful at the time, but to the other person, it comes across as it being “all about you” and takes the focus of them and their issue/challenge, etc.

    • Katie Kelly

      sorry meant to say “takes the focus OFF of them and onto you”

    • gretchenrubin

      Such a good point – such a temptation to do this.

  • penelope schmitt

    Interesting that you recommended ‘Crazy Time’ to someone going through a divorce. I read that in the 1980s when I separated from my husband. When I read it I thought ‘Nah, not me!’ and then I proceeded to live almost every one of the experiences described in the book. It became instructive and supportive retrospectively, as I found myself experiencing exactly what the writer had described would typically happen. I’d recommend it too. This passage in life IS a crazy time. So glad that is now mostly in the past.

  • Allie

    Great post. I have the same “problem” with having to restrain my urges of wanting to recommend a book or an article when someone tells me about a source of concern.

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  • Julie Lanner

    Have you found any strategies that have helped you be a better listener?
    Yes. first you must shut up and listen, not planning a response, listen to the emotions. Open your heart so their needs can penetrate it. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra says,”Yui Butsu, yo Butsu, shoho jisso” Only Buddha to Buddha can the ultimate reality be discussed, one Buddha nature to another Buddha nature. People think they drive off facts, but they do not. Emotion is the real reason why people do the important things in life, marry someone, divorce someone, pick a city to live, pick a profession, have children. when you respond, remember that it will not help to share your current truth about life as you understand it. That is only confusing to them because they are somewhere else. Ask yourself, where are they and where do they want to go and what is the next best step for this person, to lead them in the right direction they want to go? We never interfere with their goals. They call ’em and I support them. If the goal is inappropriate, that will be revealed as part of the process. We can, however, help them gain perspective on what their underlying values are. One time a female senior VP of my company called me into her office and said, “you have a good work life balance and your kids are doing well. I want to ask your advice. I want a baby, but have had several miscarriages and the doctor says I should quit work for a year if I want to have a baby. But I’ve worked so hard to get here and I’m afraid if I do that I’ll never have such a great job again. What should I do?”

    I said, ” tell me your life story twice. Pretend I’m your great niece and you’re 90 years old on your death bed and I’m writing a family history. As you tell your story, when you come to this year tell it to me first as if you took a year off to have a baby and second time as if you did not. ”

    She started, ” I was born in Iowa, and…” They suddenly her face lit up like a light, ” I don’t need to tell the story. I know what is right for me.” All she needed was to pull her mind out of the pressures of the moment and look back from age 90. The next week, they announced her replacement, and within a year she had a beautiful baby girl. When the child was old enough for preschool, she took in part time work consulting. And by the time baby was in kindergarten, she had been offered a great, high-powered job by one of her consulting clients. Cake and eat it, too.

    You listened to you own heart and left a great law career for writing, so you understand. Deep, compassionate listening is powerful.

  • anydaynow

    Do you find it hard to engage in deep listening over the phone? I find that when I’m really listening to someone, there is a lot of silence involved, which can be awkward over the phone. I find it easiest to listen while going for a walk with the person, where silence feels more natural.

  • Mary Apodaca

    Yes. Don’t rush to fix things by comparing it to your own problems.

  • Mary Apodaca

    Asking questions is very scary b/c those who like to talk a lot may keep going and going. Better to just listen without giving much feedback with these storytellers.

  • joanna

    If it looks like it’s going to be a long or serious conversation, I descretely put my phone on silent/airplane mode and out of my hands. Too easy for an unexpected call to ruin an important conversation.

    Also, sometimes listening well means paying attention to signs you should offer the option to end or defer the conversation. Sometimes something along the lines of “I’m happy to keep talking as long as you need to, but if this conversation is too difficult right now we can come back to it some other time” can be immensely helpful. It’s so frustrating to get to the point where you really don’t want to keep discussing the hard thing going on in your life any more, but in a misguided effort to be helpful the other person keeps pressing the topic.

  • mom2luke

    Uh oh. I do this all the time: “But speaking of books, here’s a mistake I find myself making over and over: when someone’s trying to explain some problem to me, I respond by making suggestions of books for that person to read.
    Practically everything in life reminds me of something I’ve read, and when people are in a difficult situation, I’m often flooded with thoughts about relevant passages I’ve read, or books that might be useful.”

  • I would add one more thing, which is not a part of listening but rather a consequence. REMEMBERING! My mom is a master of listening and remembering, which makes her a genius with people. I am delighted when I tell her something and then a couple of weeks (or months) later she recalls everything we’ve talked about. “Mom, you’re awesome! How do you do that?” “I am just listening!” She is immersed in the conversation. That is the best proof of listening. I tried to do this myself and people are psyched! Try and you’ll see! It even makes me a bit sad how thrilled people are when they realize that you’ve listened to them and remembered the conversation. Have you noticed this? Please share your thoughts. 🙂

  • santaclams

    Two things I learned several years ago to do was not to put words in the other person’s mouth (if they’ve paused for a moment or are trying to think of a word), and also not to queue up your own response as you’re listening to them, rather be wholly present with them as they are speaking. Now that I’ve stopped doing these things, I’ve noticed how others do them quite a bit…and it’s vexing because often they do not anticipate correctly what I was about to say, their interjection slows down my train of thought, and it all makes me wonder if they really want to hear what I have to say. In groups, it can be hard to put a word in at all. Sometimes I wait till the end of the thread to say my thing but sometimes there’s never an end or a lull!

  • Donna Deaton

    I loved this! Everything you said is so true. I often don’t listen. I don’t give eye contact when my husband is talking, put my book down, or quit watching television. I also feel that I have to “fix” things. Sometimes, people just need to sound off and do not need an immediate fix. Great advice.

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