Be A Good Listener

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  • By Robin Westen

    One late afternoon following a whirlwind of errands, I walked into my house to hear the phone ringing. It was my friend Susan, upset over an argument with her husband. My usual approach is to offer advice, no holds barred. But this time, exhausted from chores, I simply sat down in a chair and tuned in to my friend's frustration and sadness. The next day she phoned again, this time to thank me. "I'm so grateful for the way you helped me through this," she said. At first I was surprised. After all, I had done nothing except be there for her. But then I realized that my focused silence had some merit. In fact, most relationship experts agree that talk is cheap; it's listening that's rare and valuable. Here are some ways to do it better.

    Ask, Don't Tell

    It's natural to want to help the other person by offering a solution or sharing a perspective on a problem. But no matter how carefully we may have weighed our response, experts agree that once advice is offered, communication is likely to shut down.
  • Make Eye Contact Always allow the speaker's words to sink in before responding. This allows her to consider what she has said as well as to clarify or change her thoughts. You're also telling the other person that she has something worthy to share, and that you are open and willing to understand.
  • Fill in the Blanks Most of us leave out about 25 percent of our story. Perfect your listening skills by noting gaps and inconsistencies. Take the perspective of an objective observer by asking brief follow-up questions when something doesn't make sense to you.
  • Read Between the Lines Real listening means tuning in to the emotional content underneath the words. Take note of nonverbal cues, such as voice inflection, facial gestures, and body movements. If anything seems out of sync with what the speaker is saying, simply ask, "What are you feeling?"
  • Be Patient Always allow the speaker's words to sink in before responding. This allows her to consider what she has said as well as to clarify or change her thoughts. You're also telling the other person that she has something worthy to share, and that you are open and willing to understand.

    About the Author

    Robin Westen is ThirdAge's medical reporter. Check for her daily updates. Her latetst book, co-authored with Dr. Alyssa Dweck, is "V is for Vagina."