I spend a lot of time around people who are good listeners. Maybe that’s because of the nature of my work. People in the helping professions are trained listeners and interviewers – social workers, therapists, group facilitators. In my personal life, however, good listeners are not so abundant. It’s just not something that is taught, unless your course of study includes a vocation that require a good ear.
Being a good listener comes in handy, even if you don’t do it professionally. We all have family and friends with whom we interact. Even if you’re just describing your day to your significant other, you want to be heard. If you’re confiding about something that hurt you or scared you, you want to feel understood and supported. If you’re angry, you want to feel validated.
Hopefully, we want to do the same for our friends who rely on us to be a fair sounding board. It’s not always easy. I once learned a technique called “reflective listening.” It included reframing the storyteller’s words and responding in kind, also identifying their emotion. However, this can and has been overused, often at nauseum. It might sound something like this:
Friend: “I cannot believe that idiot promised to call me and I haven’t heard from him in a week.”
Listener: “So, you haven’t heard from him in seven days.”
Friend: “Just wait until I see him again. I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!”
Listener: “Sounds like you’re angry.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Another mistake we often make is to reply by sharing about the time the same thing happened to us. While it can be helpful to demonstrate to someone that we know how they feel, we risk taking the attention away from a friend who really needs to share more of their story. Resist the temptation to make it about you, at least until your friend is finished.
There are many non-verbal cues we can use to encourage someone to keep talking. Sometimes, not saying anything at all allows time for the talker to gather their thoughts and continue. You can nod reassuringly, to let them know that you are, in fact, listening. You can raise your eyebrows as a signal that they should tell you more.
When you do respond, choose your words and tone carefully. Nobody wants to feel like they’re on the witness stand in an episode of Law & Order. Be gentle. Ask questions that will encourage more sharing, perhaps at a deeper level. If you’re not sure you comprehend exactly what is being said, ask for clarification.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to know what to say or how to react. The important thing is that we are sincerely and genuinely interested and concerned. “I’m so sorry that happened to you” conveys empathy. “What can I do to help you get beyond this?” Let’s them know they are not alone. “What do you wish had happened, instead?” Helps them identify exactly where their feelings originated.
Don’t be afraid to touch a friend on the arm, offer a tissue or even a hug, if appropriate. Be the kind of listener that you would want, if you were in their shoes. Someday, you will be.