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How to Be a Good Listener: The Experts' Guide

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How to listen to your partner:

Quilliam says, “You need to re-establish the habit that was there when you fell in love with each other, when there was nothing better than listening to your beloved explain who they are.” She suggests reclaiming 10 minutes every day when you are both alone and can sit on the sofa and listen to each other for five minutes each; set an alarm to go off at the end. She calls this one-way listening, where one partner is given all the focus, so the listener can allow his or her mind to settle without thinking of what to say next. “This way, when your partner really needs to talk, your listening muscle will be trained.”

How to listen at work:

First, you need to give the person plenty of time and space to express their feelings – which might mean scheduling a meeting for a later date if you don’t have time straight away. Once the person has started talking, focus on what they’re saying; when they come to a natural break, ask clarifying questions to make sure you’ve understood. Brambleby explains: “This signals very clearly – what you’re saying is important to me. In the workplace, it’s always a question of listening and being seen to be listening.” Formulate your questions in a way that doesn’t sound aggressive: “What do you mean by that?” can sound attacking, while “Explain to me what’s behind that” sounds encouraging. Use your colleague’s words to reflect back what they’re saying, even if it means swearing: for example, “You’re telling me Carole is a fucking bitch. What is making you feel that way?” Brambleby explains that this can be particularly effective, because it might be the first time that they have listened to themselves. Mirroring their own language can shock them into questioning why they have had such an extreme reaction.

How to listen to a child: tune into the feelings behind their words and make an effort to recognize them.

One particular word that gets in the way of that is “but”. “Parents often begin with an empathic statement, then add that little poison pill,” Faber explains. “The word ‘but’ tends to diminish or erase what went before, as in, ‘You sound so disappointed about missing Julie’s party, but it’s only one party.’ Instead of butting away the feeling, give it full value.” She suggests instead prefacing the statement with “even though”, as in, “Even though you know it’s only one party, you’re still so disappointed to be missing it.” That way, you credit your child’s intelligence and make your own point without dismissing theirs.

How to listen to someone who's angry:

Let that person be angry. If it’s in the workplace, you may need to move to a private room, but don’t try to restrain them. “Give them time. Eventually – sometimes it’s seconds, sometimes minutes, but rarely longer – they will have said what they need to, to get that raw emotion out. It takes courage to do that, because we are frightened by strong emotions. But in my experience, it is the only effective way to deal with anger.” When the tirade is over, you can ask questions to clarify what it is that has angered them.

How to listen to a friend who is down

The first step, Pam says, is being aware of the barriers. If your friend is feeling low, even expressing sympathy can get in the way. “We think it’s helpful to say, ‘I know exactly what you mean, I went through something similar…’ but that’s you talking about your own feelings, rather than allowing your friend to tell you what it’s like for them. When a person wants to express their pain, your experiences aren’t relevant to them.” A similar, common mistake is to leap to offer advice before being asked. “Giving advice is not listening, and often it’s not helpful,” Pam adds. “It shuts people down. If you feel a responsibility to fix your friend’s problems, relinquish it.”

The hardest habit for me to break was the instinct to turn the conversation round to the positive. It took a while for me to understand that if a friend is in a dark place, the most compassionate thing we can do is to climb down into that place and sit with them for a while. “If a person trusts you enough to talk about their distress, trying to cheer them up is like shutting them up – you are dismissing and trivialising their feelings,” Pam says. “Give them the space to say how bad they feel and stay with it. Swerving away from it, talking about a silver lining, can signal you don’t want to hear it.” Focus on your friend and their words. Thinking too much about your responses can be detrimental. “Sometimes, my mind’s whirring and I’m so busy thinking about what to say that I leap ahead,” Pam explains. “So I make a constant effort to calm my mind down and tune into what is being said.”

It is possible, when you know how, to say a lot without saying anything at all. “Just being a calm presence can give someone the trust and confidence to open up to you,” she tells me. Your body language should look engaged, perhaps leaning forward, and be open to making eye contact but also sensitive to people who might find it unnerving. Adopt a soft, caring voice, but beware, Pam warns: “There’s a fine line between sounding warm and gentle, and sounding patronising and pitying. Don’t talk down to anyone, just show genuine interest.”

Your most important tool, she says, is silence. “Don’t be afraid of silence; learn to hold it. Although it may feel uncomfortable to you, it won’t to them. They’re working through painful thoughts and feelings, so don’t rush them. People will start opening up if you don’t interrupt.”

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