A Therapist Explains How To *Really* Listen To Another Human Being


Let’s face it: Most people aren’t good listeners. In fact, most people — including your best friend who truly loves you to the moon and back — are terrible listeners. But it’s not their fault. No one (well, very few people) are out here trying to ignore your important thoughts and problems. They want to help, but listening is hard.

So, what’s the issue? Well, first off, no one actually teaches us how to listen to others. And, second, when we are taught about listening, it’s often presented as a passive skill, something that you do while allowing your eyes to glaze over and your mind drift off until you have an opportunity to speak again. And if that sounds like you — even a little bit — you’re not alone. Right now, people all over the world are feeling not listened to while their friends, parents, significant others, and all other manner of acquaintances are sitting there wondering “what the hell?”

Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes, though. All you need to know is this: Like any other skill, listening well takes time and practice. And in order to help you communicate better, we enlisted the help of Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist who’s seen just about everything (check out her previous conversations with us here and here) to give us a primer on how to stop just hearing and start really learning how to buckle down and listen to the people in your life.

Slowwwwwwwww Dowwwwwwwn


Here’s the thing: bad listeners — those who just want to jump into the conversation as soon as a moment presents itself — aren’t typically trying to one-up or hurt the people they’re speaking with. “One of the communication patterns I’ve seen most frequently, in the US in particular, is that we’re all really quick to want to help another person, and think that we understand them,” Marin says.

While this doesn’t sound at all bad (who doesn’t want to be understood?) Marin points out that the problem arises when we’re in such a rush to connect with another person — to show the that we “get it” — that we stop paying attention and jump right into reciprocal sharing; that is, we start describing an experience we’ve had that’s parallel to the one that’s being discussed, as an attempt to show understanding.

“We can be so desperate to get to that moment of connection that we often end up cutting the other person off prematurely,” Marin adds. “I see a lot of jumping to conclusions; or the speaker is halfway through the sentence, and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I got it, I got it, I know where you’re going already.'”

The problem? You usually don’t now where the other person is going. And even if you do, the jumping in will often feel like an interruption rather than a genuine moment in which you and the speaker truly feel each other.

“Slow down, and really let the person get their full thought out before responding,” Marin says. “Often, when we think we’re listening, what we’re actually doing is planning our response. You can’t do both of those things at the same time. It just occupies too much brain space.” That means you may think you’re listening (and your intentions could be 110 percent pure) but you’re actually doing a pretty crappy job of it.

Is there an easy fix to this? Yep, but you’re going to have to be more mindful of how you communicate. First, slow down and stop thinking about your responses while you’re listening. Your goal isn’t to force a connection or help someone — that comes later — but to show the person that what they’re saying is important. So allow yourself to chill out, focus on the other person, and then ask questions instead of jumping in with your own personal experience.

“You don’t have to get to that place of ‘I get it,’” so quickly,” Marin says. “It’s okay to have a little uncertainty.”

“Really be thoughtful about letting the person finish their full sentence,” Marin adds, “and maybe even let there be a little bit of an awkward pause at the end, just so you can fully make sure that they’re saying what it is they needed to say. If you’ve interrupted somebody, that’s a tell-tale sign that you’re not doing a good job of listening, you’re jumping ahead a little too much.”

Ask Questions


Think about your goals when you’re listening to someone. Is it to let someone vent? To solve a problem? To tell your friend how to properly live her life so the problems that are befalling her right now don’t befall her again? All these things may be true — you sound like a really great friend, BTW — but they’re also secondary to allowing the other person to know they’ve been heard. So resist the urge to preach and get interested instead.

“I think a lot of it is trying to take this mindset of genuinely being curious about what’s going on in another person’s head,” Marin says. “A lot of us start to get this idea that when you know somebody really well you know what’s going on in their head, and the reality is that we never know what’s going on in another person’s head, like ever. Truly ever.”

In order to combat this, Marin suggests cultivating what she calls “a beginner’s mind.”

“It’s trying to get to this place of feeling more curiosity, and more of the unknown of really trying to get a sense of, ‘what’s going on in that person’s brain?’ ‘How are they stringing their thoughts together?’ ‘What’s coming up for them in this moment?’” she says. “And the only way you can do that, to truly be curious and show whoever you’re speaking to that you’re hearing them, is to squelch the impulse to share or rescue and start asking questions instead.”

There are two types of questions you could ask: The first type is content-based, so ask the person you’re listening to “tell you more.” If they’re feeling a particular type of way, ask them about another time they’ve felt that way before and what it was like. Feel free to be openly curious about the situation the other person is going through, without being judgmental — so maybe avoid questions like ‘why did you do that?’ and go for more questions like ‘and what happened next?’ or ‘how do you feel about that?’ There’s also the old stand-by of ‘well, how are you feeling right now?’ which Marin says you shouldn’t just write off. Sometimes, just asking a person to explain how they feel in the moment can be a powerful way to foster connection.

The second type of question? It’s the kind that you may have learned about in a communications class you took your freshman year. “A good way to ask questions is the old psychology trick of trying to repeat back what you think that you heard,” Marin says. “So just try saying like, ‘Okay, is this what you’re saying? I think I understand. Is it this?’ That can be a really good way to gauge if you’re hearing right.”

This allows the other person to let you know if you’re actually getting them (we’re often wrong!) and lets you get a good sense of whether you’re picking up on what they’re saying.

Of course, you should use these types of questions in moderation, lest the speaker think you’re just reciting lines that you’ve learned (it gets more natural with practice) and, Marin adds, it’s totally okay to call yourself out if it’s clear that you and the speaker are completely missing each other when it comes to whether you’re understanding or not.

“I think we’re all desperate to be listened to,” Marin says, “so if we get a sense that the other person is really making a genuine effort, and they really care, nobody’s going to complain and be like, ‘No, I don’t want to explain that to you again.’ As long as you’re having that good attitude about it, and the person understand that your motivations are pure.”

“I think a lot of us have that natural reaction to want to jump into problem-solver mode, especially when it’s somebody that you really care about,” Marin continues. “You don’t want to see them hurting, or dealing with something difficult, so a great question that you can ask is, ‘what do you need from me around this, do you need to just talk about it? Do you want me to help you brainstorm some solutions? Do you want me to take the lead and do something?’”

“If you were able to hear from that person, ‘hey, I need you to just listen right now,’ then that would instantly put you more into that mindset, where you’re not having pressure on your shoulder of, ‘Oh God, I have to listen to him, and understand what he’s saying, and I need to come up with the perfect solution to how to make him not feel this way.’”

Make the Conversation more Manageable


If you’ve ever been in a relationship (of any kind), you know that fights are inevitable. And once you start fighting — and most of us aren’t taught how to argue correctly, either — the conversation often turns into a flurry of accusations, allegations, and rehashes of old arguments that happened three years ago but seem pertinent now. Bringing all that up? It’s not going to win you any accolades or a quick make-up.

Marin says that when we’re arguing or discussing a sensitive issue, it feels like one person unloads and then the other feels like it’s their turn to be vent about the ills of the world before they’re interrupted again. Does that work? Marin says no. Instead, she suggests breaking the conversation down into tiny, manageable pieces and allowing both parties to agree they’re on the same page before moving on to the next part of the issue. In this way, both people are heard and no one feels like their needs are being ignored.

This might also be a good time to break out the email and text communication. No, Marin’s not suggesting you start messaging your friends to see if you’re right — that’s just going to add fuel to the flame — but she says that electronic communication can be a good way to start a conversation about a sensitive topic, and it ensures that whoever’s the listener has to take in the entire message before responding.

Of course, there’s some stigma when it comes to texting and emailing — and Marin says you should definitely put down your devices when you go from chatting your problems to talking face-to-face — but it’s a good way to begin a discussion that may be difficult. And if you know that you’re someone who gets anxious when another person has a lot to say, saying ‘can we email about this so I’m absolutely positive I’m getting everything you want to say?’ isn’t wrong or shameful.

In fact, it can ultimately be incredibly beneficial.

Get Past how you were Socialized


If you’ve ever seen the comments section of a piece about good communication skills, then you know that the responses are often full of people suggesting that men, in particular, have a hard time listening without jumping to problem-solving right away. It’s just one of those things that guys do, these people argue, and there’s no use in trying to change that.

“Men are definitely socialized to do something with their emotions,” Marin says, “whereas women are socialized to have more permission to just have emotions, and just feel them. Men are programmed to believe that it’s not okay for a man to just sit around and feel his emotions, you have to do something with them, or get rid of them in some way.”

“I think that, that’s a message that all men get, on pretty much a daily basis from the time that they can even understand what’s going on, so it’s definitely an understandable, automatic place to go to,” she adds.

But is that reason enough to not be a good listener? Absolutely not. In fact, Marin says that if you’re listening to someone you truly care about — a significant other, say — and they tell you that all they need is for you to be present and to listen, that there’s no one who’s incapable of just chilling out and doing just that — even if you have the perfect solution to the problem that you’re being told about. “It just takes a little bit of intention,” Marin says.

Intention is Paramount


When you’re listening, it’s going to take some effort to not immediately jump into thinking, talking, and helping mode. But, as mentioned before, what you see as helping may feel like a rude interruption to the person you’re listening to.

“I think that something to really have in the back of your mind is, ‘all I need to do is just listen to this person, and be there for them, be there right here in this moment with them here right now,’” Marin says. “I think that’s probably the biggest mind shift that most of us could stand to have.”

Will it feel weird at first? Sure. But that’s because most of us have never actually given ourselves the freedom to listen to another person. We’re so caught up in the act of fixing that we often discount how much effort true active listening takes. And listening takes a lot of effort. That’s why there are actual courses in active listening, why there are countless books on the subject, and why even the most seasoned therapists — those who get paid to listen — often need to remind themselves that listening can be difficult.

“I definitely remember doing these exercises in my intro psych courses,” Marin says. “You think, ‘okay, this is so easy, I just sit here and listen,’ and then you realized what an incredible effort goes into actually, actively listening to someone. Even now, after sessions, I think, ‘wow, that took a lot of energy, to just sit there and listen.’”

It’s important, she adds, to recognize that this listening isn’t just something you do passively.

“It’s so rare that we’re actually, truly listening, Marin says, “that we should realize that it really is a skill, it’s something that takes a lot of effort to do.”

So pay attention to body language, tone of voice, what the person’s face is telling you. How is the other person speaking? Do they sound tense or anxious? If you’re truly listening, you’re taking all that into account, and that leaves much less space for you to focus on other things (like what you’re going to say next, or what you’re planning to have for dinner).

Want some practice? Marin recalls an exercise from grad school that really helped her. And it might help you, too. All you need to do is choose a reality show — it doesn’t matter which — turn off the sound and watch people communicate. It may sound a little silly, but because reality TV is so over the top, Marin says, it helps you pick up on what people are really feeling. That can help you be more perceptive of how people feel in situations not brimming with drama.

And here’s another exercise: Put down your phone and get off Facebook when you’re listening to someone. You may think you’re able to listen to your partner’s latest gripes about work — god knows, we all have them — while you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, Marin says, but you’re not nearly as good at multi-tasking as you’d like to believe you are. Plus, either way, the person who’s speaking will feel more heard if your attention is solely focused on them and not on a google search about what the hell was happening in Arrival that everyone else got and you didn’t. (There were a lot of plot holes, right?)

Accept that it’s okay to be Bored


Our lives aren’t reality shows, so you already know that sometimes you’ll have conversations that are plebeian, pedestrian, banal, and every other synonym of “boring” you can think of. That’s why it is so easy to think you can check your Twitter, play Bejeweled, and pay attention to whatever someone’s telling you all at once. But here’s the thing: You can’t tune out just because you’re not interested. And that goes double if you’re in a relationship or have a close friendship you’d like to maintain.

“There are lots on mundane conversations that you’re going to have that are not thrilling in any way,” Marin says. “I think there are two approaches that you can take: on the one hand you can try to see if there’s a way to get yourself more engaged, so maybe asking questions, trying to get a little more detail. Maybe your husband starts working on a cool project that catches your attention more than other projects he’s worked on. There are ways to find a little bit more of a hook for you in it.”

“The other piece of it,” she adds, “is just recognizing that there are absolutely going to be lots of conversations that are not going to be exciting. That’s where it’s good to remember that you don’t need to do anything when you’re listening, sometimes that person just wants to be heard, they just want to share what happened in their day, or tell you about the project. But they don’t need you to come up with any solutions or have some amazing understanding of it, or anything like that, it’s just normal day-to-day conversations.”

Yes, this does turn that whole adage about “great minds discussing ideas” onto its head, but real life is much more complex than a Facebook post your aunt shared once. And think about it this way: Marin points out that while you may be bored by what your friend, family member, or partner has to say about their work day (especially if you’re not in the same industry and have no idea what’s going on), they’ve probably had to deal with the same feeling when it’s your turn to talk.

That’s not to say you’re boring, of course, but a reminder that there are things that you may be interested in or care about that the other person just doesn’t get. It’s all about perspective, so recognize that no relationships are like the ones they show on TV — the crying and the screaming and the making up and the thrilling betrayals that happen second by second — and make an effort to respect the other person’s right to be listened to just because they’re a human being that you care about.

“There’s something there about just having a sense of goodwill with each other and recognizing that nobody’s ever trying to be boring, or mundane,” Marin says. “When we’re communicating with another person, especially with our partners, we’re trying to connect with them, we’re trying to have some time with them, just have some moments of intimacy and connection. Even if there are times when one of us brings up something that’s kind of boring, and not the most exciting thing, recognizing that, at the root of that, it’s just a desire for connection, that’s a really and special thing, even if the topic itself is HR memos.”

And there’s one more benefit to listening well: When you listen to another person well, and they feel truly heard, they’ll listen to you when it’s your turn to speak. Is it going to take some practice? Absolutely. But in the end, Marin says, it’s a win-win.