Allison was already crying as she walked into my office.
She slumped into the chair across from me and explained how she’s never felt more alone than when she’s with her husband:
“I mean, he’s a good guy” she explains, “but he’s got the emotional intelligence of a rock. Any time I’m even the slightest bit upset or stressed—or even just tired—he corners me and starts grilling me about what’s wrong:
- Why are you upset again?
- I wish you could just be happy…
- What should I do?
- Why don’t you start seeing your therapist more often…
- I told you it was too soon to go off your meds.
“I know he just wants to help” she tells me, trying to hold back tears, “but the more he tries to help the worse I feel. Every time he opens his mouth I feel anxious and guilty that I’m not happy enough for him, resentful that he can’t communicate the way I wish he would, and lonely because I’m married to someone who doesn’t even know me.”
Stories like this are especially tragic because there’s actually a relatively simple fix. Both Allison and her husband are good people, who want each other to be happy, and want to make their relationship work. It’s just that one of them is clueless about one of the most important skills in any relationship: the ability to be a good listener.
Ironically, the idea of being a good listener is so well-known as to be cliche, and yet, most of us are still pretty bad at it. Like eating healthily or exercising regularly, we all know it’s good for us, but we struggle mightily to actually do it consistently.
Thankfully, becoming a better listener is not that difficult if you know where to start and are willing to practice.
Here are 5 practical tips anyone can use to become a better listener. And if cultivated, they will dramatically improve the quality of all your most important relationships.
1. Focus on the person, not the problem.
Most of us are problem-solvers at heart.
Combine a strong biological survival instinct that pushes us to identify and solve problems with a pervasive cultural value around individual achievement and analytical prowess, and it’s not surprising that we’re all constantly looking for problems and trying desperately to solve them.
And while our ability to solve problems is helpful in much of life, it’s precisely the wrong thing to do in a few situations. Namely, when people simply want to be heard, understood, and feel connected, problem-solving and advice-giving directly interferes.
When someone is scared, angry, depressed, or otherwise upset, the last thing they want is to feel like a burden or that something is wrong with them. But that’s exactly what you encourage when you give unsolicited advice to someone who’s struggling — they end up feeling like a problem.
There’s a time and a place for giving advice. And thankfully, there’s a dead give away that lets you know exactly when you should start giving advice: When someone asks for it!
Until then, hold off on all your brilliant words of wisdom and focus on just being present.
2. Ask open-ended questions
In most parts of our lives, asking questions is about getting answers. And often the more succinct and brief the question, the more clear and useful the answer. Which means, we all tend to ask questions that encourage the other person to give one, short, concise answer. In other words, we tend to ask closed questions.
But this is a problem when it comes to being a good listener. Of course, being a good listener usually requires some question-asking. But how you ask questions matters. A lot.
Conversations are about more than information exchange. They’re about connection.
When a family member or spouse is upset, for example, the goal of being a good listener isn’t primarily about extracting the facts of what made them upset or what their plan for moving on is.
Instead, the goal is usually to be supportive, to empathize, to offer encouragement, and to help them to feel like you’ve got their back and that they’re not alone.
Open-ended questions communicate that you care about the other person. Closed questions communicate that you care about information.
- Instead of: Why are you upset? Try: How are you feeling?
- Instead of: Was work stressful again? Try: How was work?
- Instead of: Did your mom criticize you again? Try: What happened in the conversation with your mom?
When in doubt, here are a few generic open-ended questions that work well in almost any scenario:
- What was that like for you?
- Can you tell me more about that?
- How did you feel about that?
- How are you feeling right now?
- What was going through your mind?
Being a good listener is about the person sitting next to you, not information.
Pro Tip: When asking questions, avoid beginning with Why and use What or How instead. Why tends to make people feel like they’re being questioned and judged whereas How and What feel more neutral and less inquisitory.
3. Reflect back what you’re hearing
When I first began my training to become a therapist, I remember thinking that reflective listening had to be the stupidest thing I’d ever learned. Fast-forward 7 or 8 years, and I think it may very well be the most brilliant.
Reflective listening means repeating back—usually in your own words—what the person across from you has said.
- Statement: I couldn’t believe Tony said that to me! In my head, I was like “Who the hell do you think you are?” And then to make it worse, no one else even said anything in my defense! Reflection: It sounds like you were caught off guard.
- Statement: I was just so upset and angry and sad. I had a million things running through my mind and I just didn’t know where to start or how to move forward. Reflection: It seems like you were really overwhelmed.
- Statement: You’re always so caught up in your own stuff that you never really hear what I’m telling you. Reflection: It sounds like you’re saying I don’t listen very well.
Now, when I first started doing this, it annoyed me because it seemed almost condescending—they know perfectly well how sad they are… why should I just repeat it back to them?!
The short answer is, once again, it’s not about information, it’s about feeling understood and connected.
When we reflect back what another person is telling us, it shows them that we care and that we’re listening carefully.
In other words, reflective listening makes people feel heard. And when people feel genuinely heard, all sorts of good things start to happen, no matter how bad the situation is.
4. Validate their emotions
As we discussed above, reflecting back what someone says builds trust and confidence that you understand and care about what they’re saying.
Similarly, when we acknowledge and validate how someone feels emotionally, we send an even more powerful message that we understand them on a deep level and are with them.
Now, the term emotional validation sounds a bit technical and complicated, but it’s actually straightforward…
Emotional validation means showing someone else that their emotions are valid.
A few examples using the same statements from above:
- Statement: I couldn’t believe Tony said that to me! In my head, I was like “Who the hell do you think you are?” And then to make it worse, no one else even said anything in my defense! Reflection: It sounds like you were really angry and disappointed in Tony and your coworkers.
- Statement: I was just so upset and angry and sad. I had a million things running through my mind and I just didn’t know where to start or how to move forward. Reflection: I can see how that would make you feel really sad and angry.
- Statement: You’re always so caught up in your own stuff that you never really hear what I’m telling you. Reflection: Yeah, I can see you’re pretty angry with me for not listening better.
Emotional validation is as close to pure Harry Potter-style wizardry as it gets. Something borderline miraculous happens when we’re upset and the person across from us acknowledges the specifics of our emotional distress. Not in an intellectual or problem-solvey way; but in a plain, straightforward I-can-see-how-you-feel way.
From birth, most of us have been trained to see our own “negative” emotions as bad, something to be eliminated or fixed. This creates deep anxiety and guilt in all of us.
But when we validate another person’s emotion by simply naming it and acknowledging that we understand it, we give someone an incredible gift: the right to feel whatever it is they feel without shame or fear.
There isn’t a single relationship in your life—big or small—that won’t improve dramatically if you can get in the habit of validating other people’s emotions.
5. Validate your own emotions
Nothing sabotages your ability to be a good listener faster than defensiveness.
Defensiveness is just what people do when they feel threatened in a relationship:
- Your spouse makes a seemingly sarcastic comment about your new shoes on the way out the door…
- Feeling insulted, hurt, and increasingly angry, you jab back about how she’s always so negative and critical.
- In response, your spouse feels hurt and angry herself and clams up, leading to a very silent and awkward dinner with the Joneses.
- You start ruminating on how this fits her pattern and begin fantasizing about how much better life would be if you had married that cute bartender from college instead.
Like all animals, when we feel attacked, we tend to either fight back or run away—sometimes physically, but often, mentally. And while defensiveness is initially set off by fear, it quickly morphs into all sorts of other difficult feelings like anger, resentment, guilt, shame, etc.
The problem is, your defense system and all the heated emotion it generates is helpful when you’re literally under attack (think being chased by a bear) but is pretty unhelpful when you’re merely feeling attacked.
Difficult conversations often devolve into arguments and fights because someone gets defensive and ends up saying or doing something hurtful out of their defensiveness—at which point the original issue is long gone and it becomes a pissing match about past wrongs and resentments.
The best way to avoid defensiveness and continue to listen well even when you’re upset is to practice validating your own emotions:
- When your boss critiques your recent sales numbers… Acknowledge to yourself that you’re angry and a little hurt. Remind yourself that’s it’s perfectly understandable that you feel that way.
- After that sarcastic comment from your husband… Acknowledge the fear and anxiety you feel welling up about your decision to bring up this topic. Say to yourself that how you feel is normal and okay but that you still get to decide how to act moving forward.
If you don’t validate your emotions, they’ll end up getting the best of you. And it’s difficult to listen well when we’re consumed by painful emotion.
All You Need to Know
Training yourself to be a better listener is the best way to drastically improve the quality of your relationships, from your spouse and children to bosses or coworkers…
Stop giving advice.
Ask open-ended questions.
Reflect back what you’re hearing.
Validate their emotions.
Validate your own emotions.