Health

17 Tips To ACTUALLY Listen When Someone Else Is Talking

AKA how to make everyone in your life feel a little more special. Are you listening?

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1. Understand that good listening is almost entirely about how you RESPOND.

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You know how it's really unsettling when you share something with someone and you can't tell if they're even paying attention? It can make you feel vulnerable, exposed, judged, or ignored — and definitely not listened to. So don't do that to other people. Half of being a good listener is what you do when the person is talking; the other half is knowing what to say when it's your turn to talk, Susan Heitler, Ph.D., Denver-based clinical psychologist and author of book and website The Power of Two, tells BuzzFeed Life.

2. Think about how you talk to a 4-year-old. Then try to match that (within reason) when you're talking to an adult.

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That basically means be expressive, engaged, empathetic, and responsive when someone is telling you something. "How do we listen to a child? We get to their eye level, make eye contact, and if they tell us something is sad, we show them empathy on our faces," Susan RoAne, corporate speaker and author of How to Work a Room and What Do I Say Next?, tells BuzzFeed Life. "You listen with your ears, your face, your eyes, and your body language — to encourage them."

3. Actually pay full attention to what the other person is saying.

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If you're thinking too much about what you want to say next (or what you want for dinner), that means that you'll miss some of the things that the other person is saying. Then you'll end up responding in a way that doesn't make total sense, or makes them feel like you've just been ignoring them. Which you have been.

4. When you're responding, focus first on something you can agree with.

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A lot of the time, people have conversations with the assumption that either one person can be right OR the other person can be right, but not both, Heitler says.

So when it's your turn to talk, find a way to start with something you agree with:

"Yes, this winter really has been dragging on forever, eternally, never to end."

Not this:

"I don't know, this winter wasn't that bad."

5. After you've found your point of agreement, use the word "and" to add to the conversation, and avoid the words "no," "not," and "but."

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These negating words can make the conversation feel like a competition, rather than a shared experience — and can make the other person feel unheard.

So, do this:

"Yes, this winter really has been dragging on forever. And it's already officially spring and everything, seriously what is happening in life." In this scenario, you have added to the conversation, and made the other person feel like you're on the same page.

Not this:

"Yes, this winter really has overstayed its welcome, but honestly, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." In this scenario, you have made the person feel like a foolish weakling for complaining.

6. Sarcasm is the worst.

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OK, maybe not always...but most of the time. At least if your goal is to be a good listener.

Sarcasm says:

I'm judging you. What you're saying isn't worth a serious response. I'm more concerned with being seen as funny than with making you feel comfortable.

Sarcasm doesn't say:

I hear you. I feel you. We're on the same page. I want to learn more about what you think or feel or do.

Replying to someone in earnest shows vulnerability, trust, and respect — and encourages them to open up more.

7. In social situations, being a good listener means being a good conversationalist.

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And yes, that means engaging in small talk. Lots of people hate small talk, but that's because they aren't paying close enough attention to ask the right questions, RoAne says. If you're smart about it, small talk can transform into more meaningful conversation. You just need to find the right things to talk about.

8. When the other person is talking, listen for a key word or phrase, and then use it as a springboard to dive into your next comment or question.

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"People will tell you what they want to talk about, you just have to listen," RoAne says.

Example:

You: "So, how do you know Meghan?"

Stranger at Meghan's party: "Oh, well, we knew each other in college tangentially, but we were never close. But I'm a taxidermist, and a few years ago she took her cat to me after he died. That's when we really became friends."

Key words or phrases you can use, in order of interestingness:

"I'm a taxidermist"

Meghan's dead cat

college

You can talk about things related to any of those concepts! Even if all you have to go with is "we grew up together" or "we went to college together," that is still enough to create a foundation for conversation.

9. Start your questions with the words "how" and "what" to leave them open-ended.

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Avoid starting questions with words like "are you," "do you," and "were you," which can be answered with a simple yes or no, Heitler says. Open-ended questions solicit much more interesting answers.

Do this:

"That's fascinating! How on earth did you ever get into the field of taxidermy?"

-or-

"What's it like being a taxidermist?"

Not this:

"That's fascinating! Do you like being a taxidermist?"

-nor-

"Were you always interested in taxidermy?"

10. Don't JUST ask questions — you have to share information about yourself too.

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RoAne points out that unbalanced conversations are boring or uncomfortable for almost everyone. And if all you're doing is asking question after question, the person you're talking to is going to feel interrogated, not listened to.

The best conversations have three traits, in roughly equal measure: asking questions, making observations, and then revealing related stories, thoughts, or experiences from your own perspective.

11. If you can't relate at all to a certain topic of conversation, borrow your friends' stories and share those.

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"You can borrow from other peoples' lives to help make conversation," RoAne says, as long as you're not sharing personal secrets or divulging information that isn't yours to tell. For example, if someone is telling you about their recent skydiving experience, but you haven't personally been skydiving, you could talk to them about your other friend who had a great experience bungee jumping, and what do they think about bungee jumping compared to skydiving, is it the same or different or what.

12. Learn how to interrupt with kindness.

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Anyone will tune out when someone is droning on and on and on. Heitler says that you should learn to interrupt in a gracious but effective way, saving both you and the person you're talking to from feeling awkward. Grab onto something that they've said, and jump off from that. That way it's clear you've heard them, and it feels like the conversation is transitioning naturally.

Try this: "Wait, did you just say [____]? That reminds me: [_____]."

13. First: Find common ground. Always, always.

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Even if you disagree with everything that comes out of your partner's mouth, you should try to find SOMETHING that you can agree with. That might even mean just acknowledging that they are feeling a certain way. It is hard to deny that feelings exist, after all, whether or not you think those feelings are based in reality. So, here's an example:

Your partner says to you:

"You never want to talk to me or hang out, you just want to play video games. You don't love me anymore."

Whoa there.

Do this:

"I can see that you're feeling unloved, and that really hurts your feelings."

Not this:

"You're being ridiculous."

Which jumping-off point do you think leads to a speedier and happier resolution?

14. It's OK to disagree with your partner. Just, if you're trying to be a better listener, you should do it in a way that's constructive, rather than defensive or dismissive.

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Remember: Find a point that you can agree on, then avoid using words like "but" and "no." Instead, explain your behavior or your feelings without diminishing how the other person feels. This way you can both come to a satisfying conclusion together.

Do this:

"I can tell that it really bothers you when I just play video games all night, because it makes you feel like I don't want to spend time with you. I DO want to spend time with you — I love spending time with you. I also want to have some me time, and video games help me relax and unwind."

Not this:

"But you're overreacting a little, don't you think? I'm just playing video games, not like going out to bars until 2 in the morning."

-or-

"But you watch Netflix for hours on end, so why can't I play video games for the same amount of time? That's pretty hypocritical if you ask me."

-or-

"I'll just stop playing video games, OK?"

In one scenario, you acknowledge your partner's feelings, explain where you're coming from, and leave room for a conversation to build. In the other scenarios, you're dismissing what your partner is saying, getting defensive without actually ~hearing~ the real concern, or just going along with it without expressing your own feelings. None of these responses show that you're listening or engaged in the conversation, and none of them help improve things in the end.

15. If you find yourself getting emotional or defensive, take a break from the conversation and revisit it later.

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Once emotions and defensiveness enter the picture, good listening goes out the window. If you feel like you can't concentrate on the "find common ground" rule listed above, tell your partner: "I'm getting worked up and having a hard time thinking clearly right now. I need to clear my head for a few minutes, and then when I've calmed down let's talk about this again."

The key is actually revisiting the conversation after you've chilled out, and focusing on keeping it productive by finding common ground and then building on it, Heitler says.

16. If your PARTNER is being emotional, defensive, or not listening...try to pause the conversation then too.

Say the same thing: "This is getting pretty emotional and heated, and I'd rather we figure this out when we're both a little calmer. Let's take a break and revisit this in a few minutes."

Yes, sometimes this is easier said than done. Hey, we're talking about your listening skills, here.

17. And finally: If your partner is upset about something that ISN'T related to you or something you did...don't immediately try to fix it.

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Sometimes they're just looking for a chance to talk something through and feel heard and understood. If they want suggestions or advice, they'll ask you for it directly. In the meantime: Show expressive empathy with your face. Ask open-ended questions. Digest what they've said and, with your words, make it clear you're giving your undivided attention. All that good stuff.

Health Editor at BuzzFeed Life

Contact Carolyn Kylstra at carolyn.kylstra@buzzfeed.com.

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