Active Listening Skills: How to Make People Feel Heard

People often have no idea what it actually means when I tell them that I’m a therapist. Some people seem to think that being a therapist is akin to being a psychic or a mind reader. They say, “Oh. Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?” Aside from this question being annoying, it shows a clear misunderstanding of how therapy works. It takes time to build a relationship between client and therapist, and clients answer multiple questions–willingly sharing stories about their lives–before therapists can make inferences about what is going on psychologically.

Other people seem to think that being a therapist is like being an advice columnist, and that I spend my time telling people what to do. I can understand why they think that. Shows like Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura Schlessinger give the impression that therapists spend all day telling people that they are stupid and how to act right. We definitely don’t do that. In fact, one of the most basic rules of therapy is to avoid telling people what to do at all costs. Why? Well, because if they take our advice and it goes horribly wrong, we get blamed. Instead, we help people to weigh their options and look at possible consequences to choices that they make. Even when people specifically ask me to tell them what to do, I refuse. They need to learn to make choices for themselves instead of relying on their therapists.

When people ask me what a therapist actually does, I usually say, “We listen.” The fact is that I am a professional listener. I spent 2 years getting a master’s degree, and 5 years as an intern to learn how to listen. I know I’ve done my job well when a client says, “Thank you. I feel like you really listened and understood me.”

That sense of being understood is sorely missing from most people’s lives. We’re all so busy and distracted. To sit face to face with someone and truly hear what they’re saying without judgment seems like an exhausting and time consuming prospect. Many people even find the listening process to be uncomfortable and foreign. They dread the words, “We need to talk.” Talking seems like a threat instead of an invitation to listen and understand.

Yet isn’t being heard something most of us deeply crave? Truly being understood feels wonderful, and being ignored is terribly frustrating. As I write this, I’m having a memory of trying to express a need to an ex-boyfriend while he played on his phone. I pointed out to him that he wasn’t paying attention to me, and he put down his phone, but then immediately looked right through me at the television that was on behind me. I gave up. And after a sequence of similar situations, I gave up on him. I needed a partner who would listen to me.

If you’re reading this and recognizing that you need to do some work on your listening skills, don’t worry. I’m going to give you some great tips. However, listening is like an under-used muscle that needs to be worked, and only you can do that. It’s going to take practice to get your listening muscle strengthened.

  1. Pay attention: This one may seem painfully obvious, but it’s actually where most people fail. When someone is trying to communicate with you, put your phone away. Turn off the television. Face the person and make eye contact. When you find your attention drifting, bring it back to the conversation. Take in what the person is saying without judgment and don’t formulate your response or rebuttal in the middle of the message. Pay attention to the person’s body language in order to get the full meaning.
  2. Show that you’re listening: Do things that give the other person the message that you’re with them. Nod, ask questions, say things like “uh huh,” “yes,” or “that makes sense,” to show that you’re understanding. Saying these things doesn’t mean agreement. It only means that you’re listening. Summarize the person’s message periodically.
  3. Ask open ended questions: These are questions that encourage the person to elaborate instead of giving “yes” or “no” answers. I like “what” and “how” questions and avoid “why” questions if possible. “Why” questions tend to make the speaker defensive. Questions like, “What was it like for you when. . . .,” and “How do you feel about . . .,” are great open ended questions to use.
  4. Use reflections: Reflection is a technique where you repeat back what someone has said to you in your own words. This shows that you don’t just hear the person, but are trying to understand them. Starting your reflections with statements like “I hear you saying that . . .,” or “It sounds like you’re telling me that . . .,” can be helpful.
  5. Witness the emotions: Weirdly, I didn’t see this one in any of the articles I read in preparation for writing this piece, but I think it’s probably the most important one. Before you can make any progress in whatever issue you’re dealing with, you must witness the emotions. When people say that they don’t feel heard, it’s usually because their emotions have not been witnessed. What does that mean? Well, it means that you need to verbally acknowledge how that person is feeling. There is incredible power in saying, “Wow. That must be so frustrating,” or “You must be feeling very sad about that.” Listen for the emotions and then say what they are. Verbally acknowledging the feelings might feel scary at first, but it’s an incredibly powerful way to show the kind of understanding that can move a conversation forward.
  6. Defer judgment: Don’t interrupt the person with counter arguments or comments until you have heard the entire message. Interrupting is a waste of time. The person will feel that you haven’t heard or understood and will likely start all over again. Wait and pay attention until the full message has been communicated. Then, if you don’t know how to respond, simply ask for time to absorb. Something like, “Give me a second to take that in,” works great.
  7. Strive to understand: Your job is to understand the speaker’s point of view. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree. Attempt to put your own reactions aside as you work to understand the speaker’s message. All people have reasons for their beliefs, needs and feelings. Their experiences in life are different from yours and those experiences have informed their viewpoints–just as yours have. To truly communicate, you must work to understand these different experiences and attitudes. This is hard work, but so very worth it. The more that you can understand different ways of looking at the world, the more well-rounded a person you become.
  8. Respond appropriately: Active listening is meant to foster respect and understanding, so when you respond please assert yourself respectfully. Do no attack or put the other person down. Do not minimize the message. Please remember–this person wouldn’t be talking to you if the message wasn’t important.

This may seem like a lot, but mastering these skills can truly change your life and relationships for the better. And while listening is work, being heard feels wonderful–like eating chocolate. So, remember this–when you listen to other people, they are more likely to listen to you. You have to give to get.

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