As a therapist (and husband), I think a lot about how to be a better listener:
- How can I help the person sitting across from me to feel truly heard and understood?
- How can I ensure a deep, empathetic connection between myself and the person I’m talking with?
- How can I get through this difficult discussion without saying something hurtful or insensitive?
And while I don’t have all the answers, here’s the biggest surprise I’ve discovered about being a good listener:
Being a good listener is about what you do less of, not more of.
Truly great listeners don’t necessarily do more of anything than the rest of us. Instead, they’re exceptionally good at eliminating unhelpful tendencies and habits that get in the way of genuine listening and connection.
If you want to be a better listener, try to identify and eliminate these 4 bad habits.
1. Trying to ‘Win’ Conversations
If you treat conversations like competitions, you’re bound to lose no matter what.
Many people struggle to be good listeners because they’re emotionally insecure. They approach conversations as competitions, with the unconscious goal of winning and feeling justified and good about themselves.
But you can’t be an effective listener if your overarching goal is to beat the other person—and boost your own ego in the process.
For better conversations, check your ego at the door.
Before going into any conversation where you’d like to be a good listener, ask yourself this simple question:
Is this conversation about being helpful and supportive or making myself feel good?
By briefly checking in with yourself before a conversation, you give yourself a jolt of self-awareness. And this self-awareness is often enough to shift you out of a competitive mindset and into a helpful one.
Instead of viewing conversations as competitions to be won, you’ll start to view them as acts of service that aren’t about you at all. And when you start approaching conversations this way, your ability to listen well will skyrocket.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey
2. Focusing on the Problem, not the Person
Just because someone has a problem doesn’t mean they are a problem.
Many of us are problem-solvers at heart. We spend all day identifying problems and errors then using our minds to come up with creative solutions to them.
In fact, most of us have been trained (and rewarded) by 20+ years of schooling to be exceptionally good problem-solvers. And for good reason: Solving problems is an incredibly valuable skill!
The trouble is: In certain situations, problem-solving can backfire, often spectacularly so!
See, much of the time, when someone “wants to talk” they don’t actually want someone to solve their problems. They just want to feel understood.
The best conversations are about connection, not information.
When we’re struggling with a problem, it’s easy to over-identify with that problem and start to feel like a problem ourselves. Good listeners help the other person to see that just because they have a problem doesn’t mean they are a problem.
And the way they do that is by resisting the urge to solve-problems or give advice at all and simply listen and offer support.
This ‘works’ because it helps the other person feel heard and to understand that they are more than just their problem.
To be a better listener, focus on the person, not the problem.
Focus your attention on the person sitting next to you—how they feel and what the world must look like through their eyes right now. When you do, you subtly communicate that, whatever they’re going through, they’re okay.
By resisting the urge to give advice and solve problems, you give the other person a far more valuable gift—the gift of validation. You help them to see that they are more than the sum of their problems—much more.
All you have to do is keep your mouth shut 🙂
We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.
3. Invalidating Other People’s Feelings
A sure-fire way to derail a conversation and build a reputation as a terrible listener is to get judgmental about other people’s feelings.
This is an easy trap to fall into: When the person sitting next to us is describing how sad, frustrated, anxious, or ashamed they feel, we naturally empathize—especially if it’s someone very important to us like a spouse or child.
As a result, we tell them some variant of “you don’t need to feel that way.”
And while it might be motivated by perfectly good intentions, what you’re really doing is judging their feelings and invalidating them.
Just because someone feels bad doesn’t mean the feeling is a problem:
- Feeling sad is a perfectly natural reaction to losing something.
- Feeling anxious is a perfectly natural reaction to a feared situation.
- Feeling frustrated is a perfectly natural reaction to other people acting unjustly.
But here’s the key:
Whether or not you think someone’s feelings make sense, their experience of that feeling is always perfectly valid.
To you, that terrible thing is unlikely to actually happen and therefore the other person’s fear isn’t justified. But your job as a good listener is not to pass judgment on how rational someone’s fears or frustrations or any other feelings are; your job is to validate these feelings.
Your job is to help the person struggling to know that whatever they’re feeling is valid, no matter how painful or how irrational.
Good listeners never treat feelings as problems.
Rather than pointing out reasons why they don’t need to feel the way they do, try acknowledging how hard it must be to feel that way:
- Wow, that must have been really frustrating for you.
- I can only imagine how terrifying that must feel.
- It seems like you’re feeling a lot of sadness right now.
Your primary job as a good listener is to be empathetic, not rational.
Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.
― David W. Augsburger
4. Ignoring Your Own Feelings
If you’re oblivious to how you’re feeling, it’s only a matter of time before you say something stupid.
We all like to think that our words and actions are motivated by pure reason and objective logic—especially when we’re playing the role of wise sage and good counsel to someone who’s struggling.
Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
Far more often than not, what we do and what we say is motivated by how we feel, or how we want to feel:
- Giving a loved one advice about their anxiety is often motivated by our own discomfort with our loved one feeling anxious. We do it to make ourselves feel better.
- We tell our spouse that their frustration with their boss isn’t really justified because we’re unconsciously still mad at our spouse for their sarcastic comment last night and want to even the score.
- We tell a coworker to cheer up when they’re sad because, deep down, we desperately want to believe that with the right attitude we never have to feel sad or down or hopeless.
The point is, how you act as a listener is profoundly influenced by your emotions.
If you’re not keenly aware of your own emotions, you’re never going to be a good listener.
How could you when most of what you say and do is ultimately about you, not them?
Truly great listeners are selfless in conversation. But the only way to resist the pull of your own emotions and stay focused on the other person is self-awareness.
In order to resist the toxic effects of defensiveness, you must be able to acknowledge and validate your own difficult feelings.
Good listeners are compassionate with themselves just as much as they are with others.
If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
– Jack Kornfield
All You Need to Know
Becoming a better listener is usually about what you do less of, not more of. And when you learn to listen well, the quality of your most important relationships is bound to improve.
Stop trying to ‘win’ conversations.
Focus on the person, not the problem.
Avoid invalidating other people’s feelings.
Be compassionate with your own feelings.