How to be a fantastic listener

April 6, 2021

“The first duty of love is to listen.” Paul Tillich

I spend a good part of my day listening to people.  When someone wants to discover their calling, it requires them to thoughtfully recount their life story. And I am present to bear witness to their memories. It is exhausting to listen. And it is exhilarating. Since launching Destinyworks, I have had the privilege of listening to some of the most inspiring, heartbreaking and hair-raising stories I’ve ever heard in over four decades of coaching and caring for people.

People are simply amazing. I have come to discover that through listening.

But to be honest, I’m not an expert listener. I am impatient and opinionated – terrible characteristics for a person who pays attention to people for a living. So I have to work at it, as I suppose you do too.

Here then are just a few ideas for upping our listening games.

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” M. Scott Peck

  1. Look at people as they are talking to you.

I fidget. My hands have to be doing something and I can’t sit still for very long. I know I can give the impression that I’m uninterested as a result. So, I have to work on this one.

I once went to a doctor who never once looked up from his computer, furiously typing as he was diagnosing my ailment. I get it. Docs have been slammed with the responsibility to do electronic note taking…but if you are going to ask me personal questions about my bowels, look at me and see how badly I am in pain.

Listening well means watching, too. If you miss the quivering lip, you misunderstand the resolute words. If you ignore the watery eyes, you diminish the agony. If you overlook the smile, you miss the magic.

  1. Shut up.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

It’s like a contest sometimes. Or at least we treat it that way. I let you speak, but as you are speaking I am amassing my replies. And as soon as you are done, I leap in with a response that invariably begins with “Well, I…” or “Yeah, my…” or “I think…” And we one-up our conversation companion with our own personal story or an impressive piece of advice or proof that we’ve “been there and got the T-shirt”. If your intention is to get something out of the conversation for yourself, then you’ll deftly turn the talk back to you so that you have been heard or commiserated with or admired. But if your intention is to love or at the very least help, then you’ll shut up.

People need to say things out loud to eventually be healed or directed or made aware of what’s going on inside of them. Help them out by giving them time and space to express the stuff they’ve kept inside. They likely need to hear themselves more than they need to hear you.

  1. Ask follow-up questions.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Brené Brown

This isn’t that hard. One syllable responses are sometimes all you need to draw your friend out further. “Why?” “How?” “When?” I have found that after only 2 rounds of “why is that?” you can usually get down to the nub of that person’s life.

Other times a statement, instead of a question, opens up further revelations. “That must have been so hard.” “You must be overjoyed!” “I’m sure that raises all kinds of questions…” “Huh, tell me more about that.”

Empathetic or compassionate listening provides an atmosphere of safety. Gentle follow-up probing tells your companion that, indeed, you are paying attention to them and that their story is safe with you.

You want to know if all this works? Consider this question…what would it feel like to have a cup of coffee or a beer with someone who looked at you as you talked and kept largely silent, allowing you to take your time in sharing, and followed up by asking probing questions that indicated they were tracking with you the whole time?

It’d feel pretty darn good, wouldn’t it?

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill






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