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How to be a good listener

Sarah Horrocks
by Sarah Horrocks Published on 16 June 2008
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Listening is the foundation for all human relationships and shows respect for someone, and it can also help with psychological problems. Here's our guide to being a good listener.

Listening: the basis of all communication
Working relationships, family relationships and relationships with friends all have a common foundation: the ability of each person to listen to others. Listening is being available, taking time for others and accepting to understand how they feel and what drives them. Listening is also analysing discussion between individuals, accepting to hear a different point of view but also observing what’s unsaid and interpreting silences. Listening is not a natural attitude for individuals, who tend to focus on themselves or interpret the little they have heard in their own way. The real nature of man is above all to verbalise his feelings, to judge and to give advice. As Goethe said ‘speaking is a necessity, listening is an art.’

What does listening consist of?
Listening demands effort, interest, concentration, attention and demonstration that you are there for the other person. It's above all proof of the respect you have for the person in that you accord them time and come to their help. Listening is not passive silence.

Several levels of listening exist:
- Active listening consists of not only listening to what the other says but digesting and understanding it.
- Mirror listeningallows the suffering person to empty their bitterness and regrets.
- Resonance listening consists of stressing what the person says and encouraging them to go deeper in their thinking, while staying positive about all subjects touched upon and solutions, without interrupting.

What is the psychological impact of listening?
Listening has a very strong psychological impact. It creates a true climate of respect, esteem and trust between two people. The objective when a person confides in you is not to investigate them or use them as a source of information by asking questions but simply to be an attentive ear, to help them to verbalise what they feel and help them, in time, to learn to listen to themselves and find their own path. It’s an approach said to be centred on the person and not on their problem, developed by psychologist Carl Rogers and used by a good number of psychologists, psychoanalysts and other specialists in human sciences. Others talk about empathy: this consists of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to better understand what they feel without actually experiencing their feelings. It serves to show the other person that you understand what they say and that they can trust you.

Secrets of good listening
Knowing how to listen is rarely innate. Like language, listening is learnt and perfected over time. Here are some strategies to adopt:

- Be quiet
How many times have we been tempted to say ‘I know how you feel, that happened to me,’ when a loved one confides in us? Although it comes from a genuine feeling on your part, seeking to create a welcome exchange and to comfort the other, it unfortunately has the tendency to make things worse. Because by doing this, you speak fo the other person and take away their subject in order to speak about yourself. It's as if the other person's unhappiness allows you to liberate yourself.

- Suspend your own concerns
This isn't easy and yet it's essential for good listening. You need to learn to give the other person time (without expecting anything in return) in order to accompany them on their inner path, at their pace, respecting their discretion. You need to also learn to put your thoughts, feelings and problems on hold. At least for a certain amount of time, the other person chooses to confide in you and demands all your attention.

- Don't think for the other person
When a loved one confides their pain to you, there’s no purpose in being a substitute for them, telling them what to do and how to react. There’s no point either in trying to understand what torments them and give advice along the lines of ‘You're in this situation because...’ They don't need to hear this: it makes them regress further into their pain and only amplifies the seriousness of their problem.

- Don't judge
‘You shouldn’t react like that,’ ‘You are ruining your life’ and such judgemental statements make the other person feel that you just want to change them and that you don’t approve. You need to take a neutral position (even if you don't feel neutral). By speaking, the suffering person learns to put their problems in words, deal with them better and liberate themselves.

by Sarah Horrocks

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