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How to Be a Genuinely Good Listener

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Despite our best intentions, most of us aren’t always the best listeners—but in our defense, it’s not exactly easy to give someone our undivided attention. We’re constantly distracted by pings and dings from our devices, for one thing. And it’s also a natural human instinct to want to relate to other people and help solve their problems—and constantly interrupt as a result. Whether you’re being lured by the siren song of a text notification or feeling the urge to interject with advice or encouragement, it can be surprisingly difficult to just…shut up and listen.

It’s not realistic to bring your A-game to every conversation, but “active listening”—the MVP when it comes to lending an effective, empathetic ear, according to the therapists we interviewed—is a skill you can hone and deploy when it’s important to show up for your people. (Think when someone you love wants to vent, get support, or simply share their perspective.) “The point of active listening is to make the person you care about feel seen, heard, and understood,” Hope Kelaher, LCSW, author of Here to Make Friends, tells SELF.

But what does that actually look like? It will depend a lot on the situation at hand and your relationship with the speaker, but there are a few golden rules that can level up your skills. Below, experts share seven things to keep in mind the next time someone you care about needs to talk—and you want to really hear them.

1. Ask what they need from the conversation.

Before we get into more general tips, know that the most essential instructions might come from the person you’re talking to. Often, it’s simplest to just ask what they need. “Are you venting or am I helping?” is the go-to phrase for Mary Houston, LCSW, therapist and cofounder of The Cove Restorative Psychiatry & Wellness in Durham, North Carolina. “They might not know, exactly, but this frame can tease out whether they’re looking for something specific or just someone to listen,” she tells SELF.

That’s not the only way to suss out how to best support them. You can also ask for other preferences or more context. Do they welcome swapping similar experiences or would they rather keep the focus on them? Is this a feelsy conversation or a practical one? The point is to offer options, Houston says, which is often more helpful than a broad “What do you need from me here?”

By the way, you don’t have to square all of this away at the top of the conversation. Checking in as it comes up works, too, and can feel more natural. Think: “Oof, that reminds me of my last boss—would it help to hear how I dealt with it?” or “Dang, that sounds frustrating. Are you looking for advice here or nah?”

2. Mirror their words back to them.

You might have heard this strategy referred to as “reflective listening,” a big part of active listening. “It involves gleaning information from what the other person is saying and putting it back out there in bite-size pieces,” Kelaher explains. The main goal—beyond staying engaged—is to make sure you’re understanding them correctly so you can show up the way they need, whether that’s offering appropriate advice or validating what they’re feeling.

Kelaher suggests phrases like, “If I’m hearing you correctly…” and “If I’m getting this right….” For example, “So if I’m understanding, this promotion has been way more stressful than you anticipated?” Then, once you summarize and ensure you’re on the same page, you can add some validation too. “Ugh, it’s so tough when something you were pumped about turns out differently than you expected.”

On the other hand, don’t fake it if you’re not sure what’s at the crux of what they’re telling you. Instead, ask for clarification. As for how….

3. Ask simple, open-ended questions.

You may feel the need to ask really insightful or detailed follow-up questions, whether to prove you’ve been listening or flex your prowess as a conversational partner. But actually, some of the most effective things you can say as a listener are pretty simple. “Maintaining a sense of curiosity is key,” Kelaher says. It can help you zero in on what’s important to the other person—and keep you from jumping to conclusions.

Kelaher and Houston both recommend some variation of: “Tell me more.” You can switch it up to be more specific, like “Tell me more about how you were feeling when X thing happened” or “Can you help me understand what Y experience brought up for you?” Whatever helps them expand on what they’re saying—and increases your own comprehension.

4. Don’t rehearse your replies while they’re talking.

It’s tempting—when someone you care about shares a problem or vulnerability, it’s natural to want to say the “right” thing. Not to mention, research shows that people tend to think faster than they talk, so it’s no wonder our thoughts pile up before our convo partner finishes speaking. But if you’re busy formulating your own response, you can’t actually pay attention to what they’re saying. “We spend too much time in our own heads instead of being present in the conversation, which is a core component of active listening,” Kelaher says.

The next thing you know, you’re focused on finding an opening for your prepared response, which means you’re listening even less. And realistically, the other person will likely pick up on cues that your mind is elsewhere. Speaking of….

5. Watch your body language and eye contact.

“So much of communication is nonverbal,” according to Kelaher. “Are you looking in their eyes? What is your body posture like? Are you facing one another?” These small cues can be the difference between signaling “open and understanding” and “closed off and disconnected, she says.” I’m sure you can guess which one of those is preferable for this whole active listening thing.

That said, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to look and act a certain way, lest you become more preoccupied with performing as a good listener than actually being one. ​​“Not everybody shows up in the same way to conversations,” Houston says, noting that some folks have trouble with eye contact, sitting still, and other nonverbal cues for a variety of reasons including neurodivergence. “That doesn’t mean you’re not capable of providing a warm empathic presence in your own way.”

Once you know what works for you, it doesn’t hurt to communicate it so you’re not accidentally sending the wrong message. If you’re comfortable, try something like, “Don’t take it personally if I look around while you talk—I realized I’m a better listener when I’m not distracted by eye contact.”

6. Check your judgments and assumptions.

Most of us don’t show up to conversations planning to criticize the other person or jump to conclusions. But because we’re human, we do it anyway. “What's more important than trying not to judge is making sure you don’t let the judgments affect your presence in the conversation,” Houston says.

If you find judgy thoughts creeping up in the moment, she suggests some good ol’ grounding. For example, you might steer your mind away from your inner monologue by focusing on your breath or the environment around you instead. You don’t want to whip out a full-on meditation when you’re supposed to be tuned in, of course, but “just keep bringing yourself back to the room and the present moment,” Houston says, noting that practicing mindfulness in your everyday life can also boost handy active listening skills like focus and awareness.

The reflective listening techniques we mentioned above can help you keep critical comments to yourself since you’re maintaining focus on the other person’s experience. “You can provide empathy without opining about the details of what someone is sharing,” Kelaher says.

Sidebar: If you find yourself biting your tongue a lot—like when your friend rants again about the partner you wish they’d just dump already—Houston notes it may be worth drawing some boundaries in a separate conversation. Being a good listener doesn’t mean signing up for an all-access pass to every vent session!

7. Cut down on distractions.

From the normalization of having a phone attached to your hand to our culture’s emphasis on the importance of productivity, many of us multitask more than we realize—and it’s not exactly great for our listening skills. It might seem innocuous enough to call a friend while doing the dishes or occasionally check for notifications while catching up over coffee, but if your goal is to be a good listener, give it your full focus.

For one, it helps you adhere to the best practices we’ve already discussed. Distracted listening = passive listening, Houston says. But more than that, our brains are just not very good at multitasking, and it comes at a cost. Typically, we’re not doing two things simultaneously so much as rapidly switching our attention back and forth between them, research shows. As you can imagine, that makes it difficult to do…well, most things on this list—at least effectively.

“Ultimately, active listening is displaying through your words and your actions that you are present in the moment with someone,” Houston says. Even if you don’t always say or do the right thing, sometimes just being there for a loved one goes a long way toward being a better listener—and deepening your bond.

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Originally Appeared on SELF