My dad was a volunteer for the charity Samaritans and I always felt inspired by the idea of him making a difference to the lives of strangers through the simple act of listening. So when I left my corporate job, I jumped at the chance to work for the charity. Active listening has helped me be there for my family during a difficult few years, too. We lost a loved one to cancer and the grief was tough to navigate. Then came a worldwide pandemic and the loss of freedom and certainty. Whenever things feel hard, I try to move away from talking into a listening space. The moment you realise someone is trying to work something out for themselves, and that your role is to help coax it out rather than shut it down with your own interpretation or advice, can feel like a real revelation.
Listening is a really underrated yet important skill. We hear things all the time; background music, street noise, people chatting… But active listening is about really paying attention and taking in what’s going on beneath the surface level. Have you ever had a conversation in which you were half-listening to someone talk, but spending most of the time lining up a reply in your head – a witty anecdote, an example of when the same thing happened to you or what you advised a friend to do in a similar situation? While you might think it’s helpful to tell that person about your own experience, a good listener will tap into what the speaker is getting at, ask them probing questions, seek out detail and try to understand more about what they’re talking about.
5 steps to listen well
Learn to be a better listener by following the “SHUSH” rule.
Show you care.
Check in with your friends and family and let them know you’re there if they want to talk. Give them time and your full attention, using open body language, good eye contact and words of encouragement to keep the conversation going.
It might take time and a few attempts before a person is ready to open up, but keep seeing how they are, as it’ll create a sense of trust. When someone is talking, don’t be afraid of moments of silence or feel the need to fill it – often this is when people are processing their thoughts.
Use open questions.
To keep the person talking until they’ve reached the heart of the issue, it’s important to use open questions rather than those that invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, which can close down the conversation.
Say it back.
Clarify what you’ve heard to let the person know you’re trying to understand – for example, “When you said this, it sounded scary. Is that right?”. When they hear their own words back, they’ll reflect on what’s been said, leading to further exploration.
There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to listening to someone, or expectation that if you ask someone how they are, you’ll then need to fix their problem for them.
Giving someone a safe space to be heard with empathy and without judgement can help them understand what they’re going through and be a catalyst for addressing difficult or emotional issues. Exploring feelings alleviates distress, helps people to reach a better understanding of their situation and can help them find a way through the problem.
Truly listening to someone in a way that allows them to feel heard is about taking the time to really understand what’s being said, without interrupting and offering up your own opinions. It’s giving meaning to what you hear and reading between the lines, clarifying what you’ve heard to get to the root of the issue in a gentle way. Your job as a listener is to keep the person talking and elaborating until they feel they’ve said all they need to.