Sometimes, really listening can be more important than saying the "right" thing. If you’re trying to support a friend in need, honing your listening skills is essential.
What makes a good listener? From active listening to body language and empathy statements, follow these tips to learn how to develop your listening skills and better understand others.
Create the right environment
Part of being a good listener isn’t strictly about listening. When someone comes to you with a problem they’d like to share, the first step is to give them the time and space they need.
Create a positive environment for your conversation. You need a quiet, comfortable space where you won’t get interrupted or be overheard. Put away your phone, too. There’s nothing more distracting than social media notifications popping up on your screen every two minutes.
Time is of the essence. Make sure you have enough time to give them your full attention. Let them know how much time you have and make more for them if you can. If you’re in the middle of something, it’s ok to ask them to hold that thought until you’re in a position to really listen.
If you’re pressed for time, though, be honest about it. It’s always better to communicate about your availability so the other person doesn’t feel rushed or dismissed.
Try the OARS model
The OARS model uses empathy techniques to facilitate interactions and develop listening skills. Based on four pillars, it will help you better understand and support others.
In psychology, OARS stands for:
As opposed to closed-ended questions, open questions are queries you wouldn’t answer with “yes” or “no”. They give people an opportunity to open up and direct the conversation as they wish.
For example, “how are you feeling?” might trigger a more developed response than “are you ok?”, which someone might dismiss with a one-word answer. To show you’re actively listening, try to ask open-ended questions such as “what was that like for you?” or “why do you think you feel this way?”
You should see open questions as a way to encourage someone to keep talking. If their story flows naturally after the first question, no need to interrupt and bombard them with more. Get a sense of when they need a little “push”. Whether it’s a “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, or a “how” question should come naturally if you’ve been paying attention.
These questions will help you better understand the issue. On the other side, they’ll help the other person explore and work through their thoughts and feelings.
Affirmations are great active listening tools to show you care and to make people feel heard and supported. It helps build a connection with them by validating their experience. These empathy statements can also boost the person’s self-esteem and encourage them to expand.
Here are some examples of empathy statements and affirmations to show you’re actively listening and empathizing with them.
“It sounds like you are trying really hard to …”
“It’s very brave of you to share. Thank you.”
“Thanks for sharing, it mustn't have been easy”
“That must be exhausting for you”
“It's absolutely ok to feel this way”
Reflective listening is a way to ensure you really understand what the other person is saying. It simply means using your own words to rephrase what they have just told you to show them you’ve been listening attentively. This technique will help you create a genuine bond and make them feel heard.
For example, if they’ve been talking about being overworked, you could say “‘It sounds like you’re really struggling with your workload at the moment and feeling that it’s all getting on top of you, is that right?”
Reflective listening allows them to hear how they’re feeling from a different point of view which can help with their healing journey.
When someone is going through a rough time, it can be difficult to express themselves in a clear, concise way. Helping them summarize their thoughts and feelings can be very useful to provide some structure to their thought process.
It can help them make more sense of it all and ensure that, on your side, you’ve been able to follow and understand them fully. By offering a summary of what you understood from the conversation, you’re checking you’re still on the same page. It also gives them an opportunity to go back on what they said in case you misunderstood some of it.
For example, you can say “I’d like to summarize what I’ve heard from you if that’s ok.” Hearing someone calmly summarize what’s going on can be very soothing and make things feel less insurmountable. It’s also a great way to test your listening skills!
Shut down your internal dialogue
Good listeners don’t prepare their answers while the other person is talking. They give their full attention to the person speaking. If your friend, sibling, colleague, or even client is going through something difficult, it’s important not to let your ego get the best of you. It’s ok not knowing what to say!
Chances are they’re talking to you because they have a lot on their mind. Don’t let your eagerness to be helpful affect your ability to actually support them. Trust the OARS model when it comes to questions and affirmations. You don’t need to cook up some deeply insightful and never-heard-before comment that will change their entire mind. They just need someone to be there and listen.
In the same way, do your best to quiet down judgmental remarks that might pop up in your head from time to time. You might not agree with the opinions and decisions they’re expressing, but now’s not the moment to be sarcastic – even in your own mind.
If you’re struggling to relate to a part of their story and feel like empathy might be losing ground, simply ask why. For example, if you think that they’ve blown a misunderstanding with a friend out of proportion, you could ask “Why did you feel that it was disrespectful of your friend to do that?” or “Why do you think they said that?”
Asking open-ended questions will help you keep the conversation as judgment-free as possible by putting yourself in their shoes.
Use non-verbal communication
To be a good listener, paying attention to non-verbal communication is key. Listen with your senses! The other person’s body language and general attitude can tell you just as much as their words.
Are they talking really fast or, on the contrary, often stopping for long pauses? Are they clasping their hands, crossing their arms, their legs? Do they keep touching their hair or looking away? All these elements can tell you a lot about this person’s state of mind and whether they’re feeling low, embarrassed, confused, or anxious.
Eye contact is probably one of the most telling signs. As such, it’s important that you also show you’re paying attention by keeping eye contact at least 50% of the time. Of course, you can’t look into their eyes all the time – that might even make them feel uncomfortable. But 50% to 70% of the time will show you’re focused on what they’re saying.
Nodding your head and smiling can show encouragement, while open body language (for example avoiding crossing your arms or legs, which might look defensive) makes it clear that you’re happy to listen to them.
Don’t fill the silence
One of the most frequent traps we can fall into is filling the silence. If someone’s going through a difficult situation, they might hesitate, reflect quietly, or even stop talking because they’re getting too upset. Silence can feel awkward, but it doesn’t mean you need to fill it.
Why shouldn’t you, though? Silence is a time to reflect or calm down while strong emotions take hold of us. If you “fill in the blanks”, you’re not letting it do its job. Be patient and let the other person get back to their story when they feel ready.
If you think they’re simply getting shy or confused, you can try an open-ended question to get them back on track. On the other hand, if the silence is emotionally charged, an affirmation could help validate their feelings and give them the strength to continue.
Finally, if you think they’re getting emotionally exhausted by this conversation, you can ask if they want to take a break and continue later. Make it clear that you’ll still be there for them if they need you. Being a good listener is not just a one-off thing!
Know when to stop
It’s ok to not be in the mood or to feel tired. Listening can be exhausting, both intellectually and emotionally. It doesn’t make you a bad person to need a break! Sometimes, being a good listener means knowing when to stop.
You can’t be a good listener all the time. If you had a very long day or you feel overwhelmed, you might lack the patience to listen to someone else’s problems in a supportive and empathetic way. Trying to force yourself to be a good listener might have the opposite effect. You might get impatient and irritated, which can’t be good for them.
If you feel like you can’t give someone your full attention, simply let them know gently. Why not offer to have a chat at another time or refer them to someone else if relevant? Explain that the reason you’re refusing your time now is that you want to give 100% of your attention to them and you don’t feel able to do so right now.
Want to lend an empathetic ear to those in need? Connect with the TalkLife community to support others and share your own journey.