10 Steps to Becoming a Better Listener

If you looked through my recent YouTube history, you’d find about 10 dance videos from the studio Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles, CA. In the back of every video, there is a bright red wall (if you see this red wall, you KNOW this choreography is about to be amazing) and a sign with bold letters that reads “Unity is Diversity.” I don’t know who owns that dance studio or why they put that sign up, but there’s a really central Christian truth in that saying: unity is diversity. The Church living as the Body of Christ on earth finds its truest unity in its diversity, for the great breadth of stories that make up the Church tells its clearest story. What’s the best way to encounter this breadth of stories? Simply to listen! In listening to the experiences of those around us, we’ll come to see a deeper truth of reality. I love listening, but I’m certainly not an expert at it — oftentimes I’d rather talk! Even so, today I have a list of 10 steps to becoming a better listener. I hope in these to give you simple and practical advice on how you might listen even better to those you meet and learn their stories.

Look at the person you’re listening to — without being distracted!

Before we communicate anything with our words, we say a lot (sometimes more than we notice) with our eyes. If you’re in a conversation with someone who’s sharing with you, do your very best to look at them! Different cultures use eye contact differently, but, in the U.S., you’re probably looking someone in the eyes while they speak and inviting them with your gaze to look back at you. Of course, don’t forget to blink — staring at someone without blinking is scary!

Be an active listener.

While someone is sharing with you, you certainly don’t want to interrupt him or to talk over him. But, it can be helpful to insert some quick and quiet affirmative phrases while the other person talks. Saying “oh yeah” or “all right” or “okay” can let the other person know that you hear him and that you’re interested in what he’ll say next. It can also be helpful to practice mirroring the other person’s emotions, and you probably already do this without realizing it. For example, if someone is telling you a sad story, it’s way more appropriate for you to make a serious, intentional face than to show a big smile, right? Acknowledge the other person’s feelings by showing him yours.

Ask questions.

Again without interrupting or overwhelming the other person, ask clarifying questions to show your interest in the story she’s sharing. If your friend starts a story about her cousin Sarah, speaks for a while, and then mentions Sarah again, it might be appropriate to ask something like, “Remind me. Sarah’s your cousin, right?” Or if your friend is sharing about her struggle to choose between two colleges in her senior year, you might say, “and that’s the school that’s farther away, right?” Asking simple questions like these shows the other person that you want to understand her clearly and that you don’t want to miss what she’s saying.

Trust the other person’s experience.

This step is a little harder. Often when others share with us, they’ll hold opinions or describe decisions that we disagree with. Even if we think (or even if we know!) that they’re wrong, it’s crucial that we still trust the experiences they’re having. There’s an important difference between “I think you’re right” and “I hear what you’re getting at.” For example, a friend might share with you that he can’t stand his teammate Sam, describing all the “unfair” things that Sam does. You might think that he’s being irrational and that Sam really hasn’t done anything wrong at all. Even so, you can trust that your friend is really upset and that his feelings are valid. Instead of saying “yeah, it sounds like Sam was being really rude,” which you don’t actually believe, say something like “yeah, it sounds like you’re really struggling to get along with Sam.” In the second statement, you trust and validate the experience your friend is having (being upset) without necessarily telling him that his opinion (that Sam is being unfair) is correct.

Try not to give unsolicited advice.

Most of the time, when people come to us to share what they’re going through, they aren’t looking for magic solutions. Instead, they probably just want to be heard. So, while listening to the experiences of others, I think it’s most helpful not to give advice unless the other person asks for it. I’m tempted all the time to tell other people how to solve their problems, and most of the time I really do think that I have some advice that could help them! But, even so, unless they tell me they’re looking for advice, I’m really just there to listen. Moreover, most of us already know how to fix our problems. Sometimes we just need to speak them out loud before we realize our own power to make a change.

Recognize what you don’t know.

As you’re listening to other people share their experiences, especially if you’re listening to someone who lives a significantly different life than you do, it’s crucial to recognize what you don’t know. Do your best not to assume that you understand the other person’s experience because being prescriptive over his life (telling him what to do) will discourage him to continue sharing with you. For example, if you’re white, and your friend, who is black shares about an instance of racism he experienced, don’t assume that you can relate totally to what he’s saying, because it’s unlikely that you’d be able to directly relate to it. Instead of saying “yeah dude, I totally get it, racism is horrible,” say something like, “I imagine that was really difficult, thanks for sharing your experience with me.” It might also be appropriate here, in recognition of what you don’t know, to use a skill we’ve mentioned above and to ask a clarifying question so to understand things that aren’t part of our own experience. If you’re already in a close, trusting relationship, you might say, “I’ve never really experienced something like that. If you don’t mind sharing, what was it like?” or, “If you feel like sharing more, what did that experience mean for you?” Phrases like these help to show the other person that, although you might not know every detail about the experience he’s relayed to you, you do care to share in his story as much as you can.

Recognize what you do know.

Even if you can’t fully know the experiences of other people, you probably can relate to some degree, and that can be a powerful thing to share! Does this negate the point I just wrote — no! There’s a difference between pretending to understand the experiences of others and offering your own similar experiences that mirror in some way the experiences of another. In the previous example, if you’re white, and you’re talking to your friend who’s black and who experienced the instance of racism, even though you can’t fully understand his experience of being a black person, you might be able to understand some important piece of it. You might say, “I totally hear you. I can’t say I know how racism feels, but I’ve certainly experienced rejection and hatred.” In an instance of racism, the rejection or hatred someone experiences is because of the color of his skin. If you’re white and you’ve experienced rejection or hatred for a reason other than the color of your skin, even though you can’t fully relate to your friend’s experience of racism, you can find common ground in the experience of feeling rejected and hated. Your experiences are equally as valid as those of the person you’re listening to, and sharing them in the right way can help to show another person that you hear them and care about them.

Be who you are.

If someone is sharing his life with you, it’s probably because he sees something in you that he likes! He trusts you and wants you to know more about himself. So, as you’re listening to him, share and receive out of your own authentic experience. Your personality and individual experiences are gifts from God to yourself and other people — use these things in conversation! Like we mentioned earlier, you don’t know everything, but you do know something! Be authentic in sharing about your own life and in receiving the parts of others’ lives that they share with you. You don’t have to pretend to “have it all together” to be a good listener or to be someone worthy of trust. Instead, just be yourself. That’s who the other person wanted to share with in the first place!

Don’t be who you aren’t.

In the spirit of authenticity, don’t try to be someone else. If your friend is sharing about her struggles with mental health, don’t try to be a therapist (unless you’re a therapist… in which case, should your friends really be your patients?). Don’t pretend to have all the answers, to be a spiritual guru, or to read the person’s mind. Moreover, if you notice something that the other person shares that might be better answered by someone other than yourself, it’s totally appropriate to suggest that that person share again with someone who knows more than you. If your friend is sharing about her spiritual life and you don’t have the answers, you might say, “That sounds really important. Have you talked with a priest about it?” Pointing people in the right direction will be way more helpful than trying to make things up by yourself.

Thank them for sharing — because sharing is hard!

Finally, while you’re listening to other people share, thank them for sharing with you. It was probably hard for them to say what they said, so express your gratitude to them for saying it! Whatever they shared was important enough for them to say to you, so reflect back to them that you understand how important their sharing was. Saying something like, “Thanks so much for telling me that. I can tell you’ve really thought it through,” or “I’m really grateful that you trusted me enough to share that,” can show other people that you perceive the gravity of their sharing and that you’re grateful that they’ve shared themselves with you.

Now, do you have to do all these things correctly all the time to be a good listener? No! All anyone can really ask is that you do your best, knowing that you’ll make mistakes and choosing to get up each time you fall. You do not have to be a perfect listener to be someone worth sharing with — otherwise, no one would ever share with another person at all! Instead, you simply need an open heart and a disposition of receptivity, welcoming others to open their hearts to you and receiving what they have to say with gratitude.