Sign up for Problems Worth Solving, a monthly email on improving services
My friend Gemma has always been an incredible listener. She seems to effortlessly find the perfect words to help someone to really open up. She’s super-empathic and being a brilliant listener seems to be woven into her DNA. I, on the other hand, have had to really work hard at honing this skill.
Active listening is such a critical skill in the kind of work we do, or in fact any situation involving people. When someone feels really listened to and understood, they feel valued, which helps them to feel more engaged, passionate and trusting, hopefully paving the way for a much deeper, real and more interesting conversation.
A few years ago, I worked on a new website for Mind. To immerse myself in the charity and their audience, I signed myself up to volunteer on their helpline. The six-week volunteer training course was interesting and daunting, covering for example what to do when a caller wants to end their life while on the phone.
The crux of the training though, was how to actively listen in order to give people the space to open up. I learnt that someone who might not be naturally empathic still has lots of techniques at their fingertips to become more empathic and a better listener – not only on the helpline but also more generally in life and work.
So, how do you actually do it? According to Carl Rogers, if you want someone to feel they’re really being heard, you’ve got to convey empathy, acceptance and genuineness.
Putting aside your own perspective on life and accepting and appreciating how someone experiences the world makes sense, in theory. In practice though, it’s not quite so simple! So here are eight techniques I learnt while volunteering, to help become a better active listener:
Space in the conversation is brilliant for allowing someone to explore a train of thought more deeply, which isn’t possible in every day fast conversation. I will say though, it’s actually pretty challenging to stay truly focussed when you’re not doing any speaking for a long time!
Apparently, most of us have around 50 thoughts flying around our heads every minute, so this one is about watching out for these and working on continually bringing your attention back to the speaker.
It’s also worth saying that if I was talking into an empty space without at least some acknowledgement that I’m really being heard or understood, I might feel exposed and may shut right down. So while silence can be a great thing, it works best if used alongside other active listening techniques that help people to know they’re being heard and understood.
2. Encouraging cues
Eye contact, nodding and making listening noises (‘mmm’, ‘uh-huh’ and ‘go on’ etc), are all great at helping to draw out the person’s thoughts.
3. Body awareness
Small subtle things like matching the person’s breathing, pace, tone and sitting position all help to give them the sense you’re meeting them where they are. Subtlety is key here, for obvious reasons!
A monthly newsletter to help you deliver better services
(unsubscribe any time)
While you’re listening to the facts, try to also listen out for the feelings behind what they’re saying. Then every now and again, use a couple of words or a short sentence to mirror or label these, such as ‘that sounds frustrating’, or ‘how upsetting for you’, showing you’ve heard and you acknowledge these feelings.
Sometimes, the person won’t mention any feelings directly but these are still obvious in their tone and body language. If you’re not sure, check in with them to see if you’ve understood: ‘so you feel that…?’ It’s actually ok to get it wrong as it shows them that you’re really trying to get on the same page, and it might also act as a prompt to encourage them to expand on their thinking.
After a while, or when the person comes to a natural pause, summarise in your own words, your understanding of what they’ve shared. You’re summarising the facts and the feelings, clearly, and only facts and feelings that have already been mentioned, without bringing any of your own experiences into play.
Use language that’s in tune with the feelings they’ve shared and try to match the intensity of their feelings.
Summarising is great. It gives them a chance to correct you if you’ve gone off track. It’s really disappointing for both you and them if you find out they’ve lost you way back somewhere and the listener’s been confused ever since!
Summarising helps check that you’re both on the same page. It also helps the person speaking to edit and clarify. Sometimes they might not have said what they meant to say. When they hear their words summarised, they can revise, clarify or modify what they’ve said.
Validation is lovely when you’re on the receiving end. Feeling like you’ve truly been heard, understood and accepted is such a treat, and so rare.
Validation is about showing someone you understand, and you accept their thoughts or feelings in the broader context of their situation. You don’t necessarily have to agree with their take on things but you do need to let them know that their perspective is perfectly valid. You can do this by describing how what they’re saying makes sense to you in terms of the context of their history or experiences.
So you might say something like, ‘Given what happened with xyz, I think it’s completely understandable that you’d be feeling like this.’ Or ‘That makes perfect sense that you’d feel like that if you think about what you experienced with xyz.’
You can also convey this acceptance by treating the person and what they share with warmth and openness. You want to continually give them the message, through what you say, that you’re ‘with them’, and it goes without saying that you need to treat them as an equal.
Research professionals are careful not to let their own opinions and biases affect an interview, but in certain situations it’s important that the rapport you have with the person you are speaking to is really as yourself, a fully rounded person with interests, thoughts, feelings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
You may be fulfilling a professional role, but you’re also a complex, unique and incredible human being – it’s very hard to have a genuine rapport with someone who hides all that behind a job title!
I’m sure some of these will already come as second nature but hopefully there are a few here that have given some food for thought. Learning how to really listen is a skill I think you can spend a whole lifetime working on, but it’s one that’s definitely worth it for the rewards it can bring. Happy active listening!