How to be a good listener to your family

When someone is speaking to you in conversation, it is easy to become distracted and think about your response instead of fully listening to what they are saying. When this happens with clients, they may sense that they have not been heard and get frustrated, especially if your response does not completely address their thoughts. Fortunately, listening skills can be improved with practice, which in turn helps you serve clients more effectively. Whether you are an educator, healthcare provider or doula, become a better listener by starting with these easy tips:

Avoid Distractions

When speaking with a client, do everything in your power to ensure they have your full attention. Move away from computers, televisions, and ignore your phone. The person you are speaking with will appreciate your attentiveness. Listening carefully is much easier without interruptions.

Maintain Eye Contact

Eye contact is an important part of any conversation. Maintaining eye contact allows your mind to focus on what the person on saying rather than on other things. If your eyes drift away, your ears will too.

Be Quiet

Learning to be quiet is one of the best things you can do to become a better listener. Though simple, it can be difficult to put into practice. Most of us are tempted to interrupt with an answer or counterpoint when someone talks. However, if you wish to be a good listener, you must control the urge to interrupt—no matter how important you think your response is. Take a few breaths instead and reply only after your client is finished speaking.

Be Honest

Honesty is key to a successful conversation. If you didn’t hear what someone said, let them know. If you don’t quite understand something, ask them to elaborate. If your mind is distracted by something else, be upfront with them about it. You don’t need to be perfect to be a great listener, but you do need to be truthful and genuine.

The art of listening is a tricky skill to master, yet it is key to healthy relationships with clients—and with your family and friends! By implementing these steps, you will be well on your way to becoming the best listener you can be.

This article was co-authored by Moshe Ratson, MFT, PCC. Moshe Ratson is the Executive Director of spiral2grow Marriage & Family Therapy, a coaching and therapy clinic in New York City. Moshe is an International Coach Federation accredited Professional Certified Coach (PCC). He received his MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from Iona College. Moshe is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), and a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

There are 9 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

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Being a good listener can help you to see the world through the eyes of others. It enriches your understanding and expands your capacity for empathy. It also increases your contact with the outside world by helping you improve your communication skills. Good listening skills can provide you with a deeper level of understanding about someone’s situation, and helps to know what words are best to use or which words to avoid. As simple as listening (and acknowledging) may seem, doing it well, particularly when disagreements arise, takes sincere effort and lots of practice. If you want to know how to be a good listener, read on to get started!

When someone is speaking to you in conversation, it is easy to become distracted and think about your response instead of fully listening to what they are saying. When this happens with clients, they may sense that they have not been heard and get frustrated, especially if your response does not completely address their thoughts. Fortunately, listening skills can be improved with practice, which in turn helps you serve clients more effectively. Whether you are an educator, healthcare provider or doula, become a better listener by starting with these easy tips:

Avoid Distractions

When speaking with a client, do everything in your power to ensure they have your full attention. Move away from computers, televisions, and ignore your phone. The person you are speaking with will appreciate your attentiveness. Listening carefully is much easier without interruptions.

Maintain Eye Contact

Eye contact is an important part of any conversation. Maintaining eye contact allows your mind to focus on what the person on saying rather than on other things. If your eyes drift away, your ears will too.

Be Quiet

Learning to be quiet is one of the best things you can do to become a better listener. Though simple, it can be difficult to put into practice. Most of us are tempted to interrupt with an answer or counterpoint when someone talks. However, if you wish to be a good listener, you must control the urge to interrupt—no matter how important you think your response is. Take a few breaths instead and reply only after your client is finished speaking.

Be Honest

Honesty is key to a successful conversation. If you didn’t hear what someone said, let them know. If you don’t quite understand something, ask them to elaborate. If your mind is distracted by something else, be upfront with them about it. You don’t need to be perfect to be a great listener, but you do need to be truthful and genuine.

The art of listening is a tricky skill to master, yet it is key to healthy relationships with clients—and with your family and friends! By implementing these steps, you will be well on your way to becoming the best listener you can be.

Level up your listening with this simple mindset shift.

How to be a good listener to your family

What happens in your mind when you hear the phrase, “We need to talk?” I am literally a professional listener, and still, that phrase puts me on guard. But when another human has something important to share, the best thing we can do is get into a mindset for listening.

Listening has always been a critical human capacity. It’s a common superpower amongst the best leaders, spouses, partners, and friends. Truly listening (without getting defensive) feels like the psychological skill of the moment.

Listening well isn’t about knowing the science of communication, or memorizing a long list of rules. Though the knowledge has merit, it pales in comparison to actually clearing the mental clutter that gets in the way of receiving the essence of what a fellow human can teach us. In this way, listening is about suspending the need to know, in order to learn.

The tendency to overcomplicate what it takes to be a great listener reminds me of the well-known Zen koan about the professor and the cup of tea. There are many versions. Here is how it is written in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in saved tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Though the goal of every conversation is not as lofty as the attempt to understand Zen, we all engage in conversations that have the power to shift our perspective; but that turn into missed opportunities because, like the professor, our minds are muddied.

This is why when I teach workshops on listening I begin with the most foundational first step: Listening to understand. Listening with the intention of understanding what another human is trying to tell us doesn’t guarantee that we will understand. But it is the necessary starting point. Further, it conveys respect, humility, and wisdom.

There’s an exercise I did early in my training as a therapist, and that I now often repeat in workshops with professionals. The group breaks into pairs with one person being the listener, and one person sharing a current challenge.

In stage one, the listener listens with the goal of solving their partner’s problem. Sometimes good suggestions come from this. Sometimes it just feels really annoying. In stage two, the listener listens solely with the goal of understanding. Again, the results vary individual to individual, but in 100% of the cases, the difference between the two listening styles is palpable within minutes.

When the listener is listening with the goal of understanding, one common outcome is that the person sharing often spontaneously comes up with their own solution. Another common outcome is that the listener feels less anxious and more receptive.

Sometimes clients benefit from thinking about the art of listening visually. When listening to another person, they literally imagine a road between them and the person that they are seeking to better understand. With this imagery in mind, they become aware of roadblocks they are placing in their own way, such as defensiveness, distraction, or a knee-jerk desire to problem-solve. They may also become aware of roadblocks they want to keep in the way. While truly listening is a gift, it’s not one we are obligated to give, especially if the person speaking to us is acting in an abusive, or unkind way.

It would be absurd to suggest every conversation deserves our undivided attention and receptive listening mindset. But it serves us and others well to have the capacity to jump into this mindset when necessary, kind, or right.

Leveraging this capacity even 20% of the time is an utter game-changer for individuals, and even for the progress of society. As James Baldwin said, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” The more power and privilege we are given, the more important it is to remedy ignorance by seeking opportunities to listen with at least as much fervor as we seek opportunities to be heard.

You can’t listen well without mastering the mindset of listening to understand. Though it may seem simplistic, it’s the most common step that gets overlooked, even by, or especially by, “experts.”

I urge you to pick a time to practice this skill this week. Pick one conversation, empty the teacup of your mind, and remind yourself (on repeat as needed), “My goal isn’t to solve or respond. My goal is to understand.” Whatever the outcome, please feel free to drop me a note about how it goes. I’m eager to listen.

Level up your listening with this simple mindset shift.

How to be a good listener to your family

What happens in your mind when you hear the phrase, “We need to talk?” I am literally a professional listener, and still, that phrase puts me on guard. But when another human has something important to share, the best thing we can do is get into a mindset for listening.

Listening has always been a critical human capacity. It’s a common superpower amongst the best leaders, spouses, partners, and friends. Truly listening (without getting defensive) feels like the psychological skill of the moment.

Listening well isn’t about knowing the science of communication, or memorizing a long list of rules. Though the knowledge has merit, it pales in comparison to actually clearing the mental clutter that gets in the way of receiving the essence of what a fellow human can teach us. In this way, listening is about suspending the need to know, in order to learn.

The tendency to overcomplicate what it takes to be a great listener reminds me of the well-known Zen koan about the professor and the cup of tea. There are many versions. Here is how it is written in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in saved tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Though the goal of every conversation is not as lofty as the attempt to understand Zen, we all engage in conversations that have the power to shift our perspective; but that turn into missed opportunities because, like the professor, our minds are muddied.

This is why when I teach workshops on listening I begin with the most foundational first step: Listening to understand. Listening with the intention of understanding what another human is trying to tell us doesn’t guarantee that we will understand. But it is the necessary starting point. Further, it conveys respect, humility, and wisdom.

There’s an exercise I did early in my training as a therapist, and that I now often repeat in workshops with professionals. The group breaks into pairs with one person being the listener, and one person sharing a current challenge.

In stage one, the listener listens with the goal of solving their partner’s problem. Sometimes good suggestions come from this. Sometimes it just feels really annoying. In stage two, the listener listens solely with the goal of understanding. Again, the results vary individual to individual, but in 100% of the cases, the difference between the two listening styles is palpable within minutes.

When the listener is listening with the goal of understanding, one common outcome is that the person sharing often spontaneously comes up with their own solution. Another common outcome is that the listener feels less anxious and more receptive.

Sometimes clients benefit from thinking about the art of listening visually. When listening to another person, they literally imagine a road between them and the person that they are seeking to better understand. With this imagery in mind, they become aware of roadblocks they are placing in their own way, such as defensiveness, distraction, or a knee-jerk desire to problem-solve. They may also become aware of roadblocks they want to keep in the way. While truly listening is a gift, it’s not one we are obligated to give, especially if the person speaking to us is acting in an abusive, or unkind way.

It would be absurd to suggest every conversation deserves our undivided attention and receptive listening mindset. But it serves us and others well to have the capacity to jump into this mindset when necessary, kind, or right.

Leveraging this capacity even 20% of the time is an utter game-changer for individuals, and even for the progress of society. As James Baldwin said, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” The more power and privilege we are given, the more important it is to remedy ignorance by seeking opportunities to listen with at least as much fervor as we seek opportunities to be heard.

You can’t listen well without mastering the mindset of listening to understand. Though it may seem simplistic, it’s the most common step that gets overlooked, even by, or especially by, “experts.”

I urge you to pick a time to practice this skill this week. Pick one conversation, empty the teacup of your mind, and remind yourself (on repeat as needed), “My goal isn’t to solve or respond. My goal is to understand.” Whatever the outcome, please feel free to drop me a note about how it goes. I’m eager to listen.

Research shows responsive listening builds intimacy. Here’s how to do it.

How to be a good listener to your family

Feelings of intimacy and closeness can pull a relationship through hard times and help couples thrive when the relationship is good.

One way to build intimacy in your relationship is by sharing your thoughts and feelings with each other and then responding to those disclosures in a way that makes you both feel good. In relationships research, they call this being “responsive to your partner’s needs.” Being a responsive partner, and feeling like your partner is responsive to you, is really at the core of good communication and closeness. When you feel like your partner really gets you, you feel like nothing else matters.

How can you build intimacy and closeness with your partner?

The first step is being willing to disclose your thoughts and feelings to your partner. These disclosures don’t need to be about your relationship (although they can be). It’s more about keeping you and your partner in-sync by sharing the thoughts that go through your mind throughout the day. You might think that silly internet meme you saw online is not worth mentioning, but if you take the time to share it with your partner, you are creating a link that ties you two together. If you don’t bother to tell your partner about your day, good and bad, big and small, you and your partner will begin to live separate lives and this will breed distance rather than intimacy.

And it is just as important that you make sure you are open to listening when your partner wants to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Don’t sigh or look at your phone or say you don’t have time. Instead, encourage their disclosures as a way to support your partner and get closer to them. Their disclosures might be something small and silly to you, but it might be really meaningful to them.

You probably don’t have endless hours to sit and chat about your days and there may be times when you feel too busy to take a few moments for idle chat. But it’s probably the most important to take some time to do this when life is getting in the way. If you only have a little time together, that is all the more reason to build intimacy whenever and wherever you can.

Ideally, this happens in person, but if you spend most of your day apart, you can build intimacy throughout the day by sharing your thoughts and feelings over the phone, text, email, or online chat. See a news article that made you think? Send it to your partner and tell them why you liked (or didn’t like) it. Hear a song you liked on the radio on your way to work? Email a link of it to your partner when you have a minute and ask what they think of it. Have a frustrating conversation with your boss? Step outside for a minute and call your partner to vent.

The second step to building intimacy is to be a responsive listener when your partner tells you their thoughts and feelings. What exactly does it mean to be a responsive listener? Part of it is that whole “don’t sigh and say you don’t have time” piece. Express interest in your partner and be engaged. Put your phone away and show you are truly listening. Then be understanding, validating, and caring.

Be understanding.

The goal: This is really about seeking understanding. You need to make sure you understand what your partner is trying to say.

How to do it: Clarify what your partner is saying by asking them what they said or repeating back to your partner what you think they said. You can do this with phrases such as, “So what you are saying is…,” “Can I make sure I understand?” and “Can you say that again?”

Be validating.

The goal: This is really about making sure your partner feels that you not only get what they are saying but why they are saying it. You need to make sure your partner knows that you really get who they are and why they think the way they do and that you respect and value them.

How to do it: Let your partner know that you “get” them with phrases like “I can see why that would be important to you,” “I understand why you did that,” “I can see why you’d be really happy about that,” “That must have made you really [insert emotion].” You can also express agreement with phrases such as, “I’d feel that way too” or “I’d do the same thing.”

Be caring.

The goal: This is about letting your partner know they are loved and supported and that you are there for them.

How to do it: Be affectionate in your behavior and words (kiss, hug, say “I love you”). Let your partner know you are in it together. “This matters to me too,” “This is important for both of us,” “We’ll figure it out together.” If your partner is talking about something negative, express support (“I’m here for you,” “Let me know how I can help”). If your partner is talking about something positive, express excitement and encouragement (“That’s great! Let’s celebrate!”).

Facebook image: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Reis, H. T., Clark, M. S., & Holmes, J. G. (2004). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing construct in the study of intimacy and closeness. Handbook of closeness and intimacy, 201–225.

Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Rovine, M. J. (2005). The interpersonal process model of intimacy in marriage: a daily-diary and multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 314-323.

Reis, H. T., & Gable, S. L. (2015). Responsiveness. Current Opinion in Psychology, 1, 67-71.

How to be a good listener to your family

There have probably been plenty of times when your friends needed to vent, and there is nothing more painful than when you can’t help them in their time of need. But whether you believe it or not, figuring out how to be a good listener is the most important thing you could do. In a society where we all love to voice our opinions on social media, sometimes, it’s best to take a step back. There’s more to listening than just sitting there and “kind of” paying attention; it’s about being fully engaged with that other person and letting the speaker feeling validated while they express themselves to you.

It seems it takes a lot to get someone to truly listen to you. There is so much out there that can easily distract us, and it seems, that people (especially us millennials) actually get bored fairly quickly. According to an article on Dr. Don Friedman’s personal website, Michael Nichols, PhD said this in his book, The Lost Art of Listening, “To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved, appreciate” While we might consider it normal to be distracted by everyday things while we are talking to our friends, why not change that outlook and conform to a new way of “listening” instead? To elaborate even more, here are six ways you can easily amp up your listening skills the next time someone needs a shoulder to lean on.

1. Don’t Be Distracted

Get rid of that phone. Stop picking at your nails. Your friend is coming to you because they trust you enough to be open and vulnerable. The most respectable thing you could do is to be completely present and make eye contact. It’s not easy for everyone to be open about their feelings, and if your nonverbals are talking louder than what your friend is expressing, then that’s not a good thing. For myself, this makes me feel more connected to my friend because I feel like they are truly listening. It shows that they really care about what is going on in my life and they want to help any which way they can — even if it that means they’re just letting me vent.

2. Talk Less

Sometimes the best thing you could do while your friend talks about their emotions and current events is to literally just sit there. Trust me, I know that that may sound strange, but for the majority of the time, when your friend asks to talk, it’s merely for them to get things off their chest. Of course, it’s totally OK to jump in when you feel like there is a pause in the conversation, but if you feel that you are starting to talk about your own life more than your friend’s, well. you might want to switch it up. It’s always good to ask questions every now and then as well; it shows that you really want to help and you’re concerned enough to want to know more information about the situation.

3. Have A Thinking Mindset Not a Doing Mindset

When you are listening, you are thinking about what your friend is talking about. According to Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist, and his colleagues at the University of Maryland in an article on Fast Company, there are two distinct motivational mindsets: A thinking mindset and a doing mindset. When you allow yourself to think, it puts the conversation and your surrounding in perspective. Absorb what your friend is by allowing your mind to rest while your friend speaks. It’s really the polite thing to do.

4. Keep Your Nonverbals In Check

Although I already touched a little bit on this subject earlier, it’s really this important, especially when you are face-to-face with your friend. According to an article for Lee Hopkins, a communication specialist’s site, social scientists have stated that “verbal communication skills account for 7 percent of the communication process. The other 93 percent consist of nonverbal and symbolic communication and are called ‘listening skills.” The way you sit and position yourself is vital to how your friend perceives you and your listening skills. If you have your hands crossed and/or your rolling your eyes, your friend is definitely going to think that you are being closed off and not open-minded. Keep it light and simple. Don’t be afraid to show an occasional nod or even a slight smile, depending on the subject at hand .

5. Listen With Empathy

There may be some of those fleeting moments that you may have had in your head, when you can’t believe your friend thought that or did that. But, in the end, your friend is human and that’s why we have buddies to vent to. If you show any sort of judgement towards your friend, you are essentially violating their trust. Before making any quick evaluations on your friends, try to envision what the whole picture might entail. An article on Psychology Today referenced a quote from the Dalai Lama that said, “People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.”

6. Don’t Try To Fix The Problem

This one is pretty hard for me. When my friend is in pain and is trying to find a solution for their own troubles, sometimes it’s hard for me to not want to jump in to help them out any which way I can. But there is always a time and place for that, and when your friend is venting, it’s important to focus on just listening, of course, unless they ask for your advice. If you want to try to help your friend, sometimes asking questions might put things in perspective for them. According to a Harvard Business Review article, Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and author of Just Listen says,”Pose questions like, ‘What are you most angry about?’ and ‘What are you really worried about?’ They’ll feel heard, and you’ll get to the root of the problem.”

After all, your friend needs you more than you know. Make sure that you are fully focused on what they are saying and don’t let them feel judged for them opening up to you in the first place. Take these steps and try practicing the next time a love one needs to do a little venting. You’ll be a listening pro in no time.

Seven steps to gaining understanding and respect.

Listening is much tougher than most people think, and most of us could do it better.

Here are seven elements of listening, all of which we can improve. To listen well, you need to:

Comprehend what’s said.

Many people aren’t clear communicators, so a good listener must untangle the convolutions. And even if the speaker is crystalline, some content may be difficult to grasp. Good listeners know when they must listen intently, and when they can get away with listening “with one ear.” And when they don’t understand something important, even if it’s just because their mind wandered, they’re secure enough to ask for a re-explanation: “I didn’t quite get that. Would you mind repeating that?” On hearing such a request, rarely do speakers think, “How dumb.” More likely, they appreciate that someone cared enough to ask for a re-explanation. And usually, the replay is clearer than the original.

Notice important things not said.

For example, on a first date, it can be instructive and revealing if a person talks only about work, not relationships. Are you good at listening for the important unspoken?

Recognize changes in tone and body language.

Good listeners observe baseline behavior: For example, does the person’s face, voice, and body language appear tense? If so, a good listener might then try to appear particularly relaxed and non-confrontive. More important is to note changes from baseline: For example, if the speaker’s vocal pitch suddenly rises, what he or she’s saying may be emotionally charged. Suddenly crossing his or her arms may indicate defensiveness or dissembling. No such cues are dispositive; they merely alert the good listener. How are you at monitoring the speaker’s face, voice, and body language?

How to be a good listener to your family

Consciously decide whether to add input.

The good listener is secure enough to rationally decide whether, in any given situation, to add input or to just listen and possibly ask follow-up questions. Don’t let your desire to impress trump what’s best for the interaction and the desired outcome. In the right situation, restraint can be just as compelling. Do you add content to a conversation only when wise?

Accurately determine whether to think ahead.

It’s natural to think ahead to what you’ll say next. That’s fine when you’re good at predicting what the person will be saying. Good listeners who have learned from experience that their predictions are too often inaccurate restrain themselves from thinking, or speaking, ahead.

Think before responding.

After the speaker has finished, a good listener may take some time before responding. Simply take a few seconds to think or say, “Give me a second to think about that.” Doing either makes a speaker feel that what they’ve put forth merits reflection and that the listener wasn’t just waiting until the speaker finished so that he or she can hold forth.

Know when it’s wise to interrupt.

Interrupting imposes a price: It makes the speaker feel invalidated. Let the person talk. And, as a speaker proceeds, he or she relaxes and is more likely to disclose something he or she might not have planned to earlier. Famed jury consultant Jo Ellen Dimitrius and sports agent Leigh Steinberg have both said that interrupting is the worst thing you can do in a negotiation. I’d temper that by saying that, when dealing with long-winded people or when time is short, some interrupting may be justified, especially when you’re confident that you know what the speaker will say or that enduring the speaker’s additional disquisition will likely yield little value or pleasure.

The takeaway

Perhaps it’s now clearer that good listening is more difficult than meets the ear. As you look back on your experience, is there at least one thing you’d like to do differently?