Learning to Be a Better Listener

Learning to Be a Better Listener

You aren’t born a great listener; you become one. Either someone, such as a forward-thinking parent, trains you or you train yourself. Listening is a skill anyone can acquire with a bit of patience and a sense of purpose to do a few necessary things.

Developing the Power of the Pause First, develop the power of the pause. People underestimate the power of a tiny one- or two-second pause. Americans, especially, are rushing so intensely to be heard and to get their little sound bites of information into the conversation that they rarely pause. If you can train yourself to pause briefly after someone speaks, you will transform yourself into a much better listener.

When your conversation partner says her last syllable, wait one or two seconds before you begin speaking. What will happen next is one of two things. Your partner may start speaking again because, in many cases, she hasn’t really said all she wanted to say! Most of us eagerly anticipate our turn in the conversation. When our partner pauses, we optimistically think she has finished speaking. We jump in because we have been scriptwriting. Most of us pay so much attention to scriptwriting that we are not sensitive to the fact that our partner is not finished talking. People find it refreshing to be able to finish all they wanted to say without your jumping in on the last syllable.


Scriptwriting is the habit of thinking of what you want to say next while your partner is still talking.

Something quite different may happen as well when you pause. Your partner will think you’re reflecting on what she has said. She will think you have found what she says worthy of mulling over for a second or two. This is very attractive and makes your partner feel you two are having an exciting conversation. When you begin speaking again, your partner will feel you have first listened to what she had to say and will listen more attentively to you in return. Soon, you actually are having a great conversation.

Pausing feels awkward at first but sticks with it. After a while, you will be pausing more naturally. Discipline yourself to insert these pauses for 21 days; after that, pausing will be part of your skill set.

The Art of Responding

The second step to take is to be sure to respond to whatever is said, even if it appears not to require a response.

For example, my brother-in-law is a brilliant attorney and very caring and generous. You wouldn’t guess how caring he is upon first meeting him because he is very literal in his communication and often does not feel that a comment requires a response. When my sister attended his 20-year class reunion with him, she was mortified at his lack of response to others. Former classmates would come up and say things like, “I haven’t seen you since we ran into each other at the beach five years ago” or “I meant to get in touch, but my wife died and I haven’t been going out much.” These comments would be met with a stony stare from my brother-in-law. He heard them as factual statements that needed no embellishment from him. After an awkward silence of 30 seconds or more, the crushed classmate would excuse himself and walk away with a completely wrong impression. I’m sure my brother-in-law was thinking about the time he encountered the friend at the beach and was also trying to remember the deceased wife, but all the speaker knew was that there was zero responsiveness to their effort to connect.

So a response, any response, is better than not acknowledging what was said. The subvocal mentioned earlier will work for only so long—you then have to say something. Most of the time, when your boss or your spouse accuses you of not listening, what they really mean is you didn’t respond in a way that proved you were listening. Responding like a good listener is 10 times more important than actually listening. You must learn the art of making people “feel listened to.” That art is called responding.

Communication Tip

What can 911 operators teach you about responding? Many of the phrases they use can also be helpful when you deal with the people in your life. Examples include: I understand; I’m sorry; I can help you …; I understand you’re upset and frightened, but …; I don’t know, but I can find out, and let me help you.

One of the best responses is the open question. A closed question requires only a brief answer, sometimes just “yes” or “no.” Some examples of closed questions might be, “Did you finish your shopping?” and “What brand was it?” When you use an open question, you encourage the speaker to go on talking and tell you even more. Open questions are refreshing, as few people are ever encouraged to tell more of their stories and opinions. How flattering!

Open questions lend a much better feel to a conversation. An open question says, “I’m interested. Tell me more.” Open questions encourage your partner to open up and tell all.

The following are some of my favorite ways to begin open questions and statements:

How did that come about?

In what ways …

Tell me about …

 Describe …

How did it seem to you?

I’d like to hear your thinking …

Would you like to talk about it?

Let’s discuss it …

Sounds like you’ve got some feeling about this …

I’d be interested in what you’ve got to say …

 People will find they enjoy conversations with you and will probably never detect that it’s because you continue to prime them with open questions. Because so much of the content came from their lives and experiences, they feel you had a fascinating conversation. After all, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves.

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