“Listening means being silent when the other is talking.”
This is something I believed for many years. My mother always told me that sometimes helping someone who’s struggling means listening and not giving any advice or input. I’ve also scrolled past quotes on Pinterest that preached, “Talk less, listen more,” and read articles that similarly recommend being quiet when others are speaking.
Is it really that simple, though? Is silence the only thing needed to be a good listener?
The Harvard Business Review analyzed data from a study conducted on 3,492 participants on listening skills. Their findings revealed that “good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.” The article further explained, “People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way.”
Participants expressed that they viewed good listening as a two-way dialogue, not as a “speaker versus hearer” interaction. Furthermore, participants also stated that they preferred listeners who asked questions to get more information, ultimately showing they had an interest in what they were hearing.
Of course, being a good listener is a skill that you have to keep practicing. Balancing silence with words of empathy, interest, and offering insight is a lot to remember when entering a dialogue. Here are a few tips for your next conversation:
1. Be in the right environment
Have you ever tried to have a meaningful conversation in a bar on a Friday night? Pretty impossible, right? The same goes for more personal exchanges. If your friend, family member, or significant other needs to talk about something, choose an environment that is conducive to more complex, emotional topics. Make sure no one else is around, that surrounding noises are minimal, and that you have plenty of time to unpack whatever it is they need to discuss.
2. Put away electronics
This may be a no-brainer, but make sure you close your laptop or put your cell phone on silent and tuck it away. This will communicate to the speaker that they have your full attention. Plus, it will help you to stay focused and not get distracted.
3. Maintain the appropriate amount of eye contact
Looking at your hands or at the wall isn’t the best way to communicate your interest, but unwavering eye contact can also be off-putting. Show you’re engaged by responding to the speaker’s gaze with your own. Follow suit when they break eye contact and re-engage. The amount of eye contact they give is typically the amount they’re comfortable with. When it comes to eye contact, follow their lead.
4. Be mindful of body language
Your body language communicates whether you’re open or closed off to the conversation. Keep your body angled towards the speaker with your arms uncrossed. Open body language communicates that you’re open to what they’re saying. Similarly, note their body language. Are they closed off and uncomfortable? Or passionately moving their hands as they speak? The way they express themselves with their body will help you know how to respond verbally.
This is where empathy comes in. As the speaker tells you a story, or expresses their feelings and thoughts, put yourself in their position. If something happened that upset them, respond accordingly. Raise your eyebrows, throw in a “What? No way! Oh my gosh!” to validate their emotional experience as they recount what happened. Of course, react authentically — feigning an emotional response will come across as insincere. Simply imagine how you would feel in their situation. When you react empathetically to what they’re saying, it helps them feel understood.
6. Ask questions
Without derailing the speaker, ask questions if you need more clarity on something they said. Asking for more story details helps you to further understand them and it shows you’re interested. Be sure to limit your interruptions to just requesting more details, not questions that force the speaker to change the entire direction of what they’re saying. Your questions should aid their story-telling, not hijack it.
When the speaker has finished, repeat back to them what you heard. This doesn’t have to be something as formulaic as a word-for-word Sparks-Notes version of what they said, but re-iterating the major details while noting the emotions they felt. This is also another opportunity to validate their feelings. It could be something as simple as, “When he said you were a bad listener out-of-the-blue, it caught you off guard — I totally get why you’d feel that way.”
8. Offer advice and insight
Feel out whether your friend or family member is open for advice. If you’re not sure, just ask them, “Are you cool if I offer advice? If not, I’m more than happy to just listen.” Usually, if someone close to you is sharing personal information, they likely value your insights. When responding to them, keep in mind everything they told you and the emotion they expressed surrounding that information. Based on everything you observed, respond accordingly.
Overall, the data concludes that good listening includes feedback from the listener. Why is that? Why is silence not enough to listen well?
I believe the answer lies in the need for connection. When we speak, sometimes we just want to air out of grievances — to get things off our chest. But even more than that, we’re looking for connection when we communicate. If we weren’t, talking to a wall would suffice.
Any time we share our thoughts, feelings, or experiences, we’re inviting the other person to have a better understanding of who we are. When they respond with genuine interest, or empathy, or relay their own similar experience, or offer advice, it’s a moment of shared humanity and mutual connection.
Listening is like receiving a gift — when you respond to the speaker with interest, you’re essentially saying, “Who you are matters to me.” It’s a way to love one another, so it’s worth doing well.