How to be a Good Listener
One of the most anticlimactic messages you could receive is a “k” after typing up a long heartfelt paragraph to a friend. Yes, they may have read it. But why doesn’t it matter if they’ve seen it unless they acknowledge it with a reciprocation of similar enthusiasm or effort? Often, we go out on a limb, bearing our hearts on our sleeves and leaving ourselves vulnerable, only to be met with a half-hearted reply. In this moment, we feel anger, sadness or even humiliation. This is because, simply put, our needs have not been met. As much as we deny it, we need other people to listen, and to listen actively.
On a crisp winter morning, a prince inched his way towards the hut of a learned monk. As he knocked on the door, the gentle breeze numbing his bare face; he began to gather himself, eager for what was to come. The monk opened the door and ushered the prince inside, with an indifferent grace. Immediately, the prince began to tremble in the powerful presence of the man he had been impatiently waiting to meet.
“I have arrived to inherit the knowledge of the whole universe, respected sir!” announced the self-assured prince. “Yes,” said the monk, with a knowing smile. “But why don’t you drink some tea first?”
The prince sat down dubiously, as he was brought a small cup of warm tea. He sipped with satisfaction until it was finished. As he began to set the cup down, the monk poured in fresh tea. The prince, now restless, began gulping down the tea. Even before his lips left the brim of the cup, the monk had refilled it once more. As the prince frantically started to drink again, the monk continued to pour, until the liquid seeped out of the small cup and splashed across the floor.
“Sir! I don’t understand! There’s no room for more tea!” cried the frenzied prince.
“Yes, my child,” the learned monk said. “That small cup is so filled, that no matter how much more tea we pour into it, it cannot be contained.”
Being a good listener is one of the most undervalued life skills we can learn. Not many of us know how to do it, because, well, we weren’t taught how. But why is it so important to be a good listener, and what makes some people so good at it?
When thinking about the traits of a good listener, I was intrigued by other opinions on the matter. One that I found most profound was that of my father. He said, “How can I be a good listener to others, if I can’t shut up inside my own head?”
That got me thinking about the good listeners in our lives. Friends, siblings, therapists; all people who have problems of their own, but listen to ours anyway.
We all have social lives that, to an extent, are driven by the need to speak, and to be heard. Hungry to talk, but not listen. There are a number of books on how to speak, how to converse, what to say. But not many on how to be a good listener. But a good listener is important, because of the sheer and shameless pleasure of their company. The cathartic feeling of a hearty rant to someone who wants to hear it, is what makes listeners our guilty favourites.
But what are the things that a good listener does to make their presence so enjoyable? To answer this question, and bring you a worthwhile article, I was able to narrow down a listener’s patterns into three important habits.
Often, when we talk about our lives, there are a number of things going on. We don’t always know our own minds; during a conversation, we don’t close in on what’s really bothering or exciting us. That is why it’s largely helpful to be urged on, to go into greater detail, and to elaborate further. We need someone who wants to know a bit more and will make their support known. They’re curious to see where our feelings come from. They keep our story in mind and we can feel them form a deeper base of engagement.
A Need for Clarity
When we talk about our own lives, it’s incredibly easy to be vague. We often skirt around issues without exploring our feelings. Those who listen will sometimes direct our conversation into deeper, more productive, and more sensitive areas. They take surface level, backhanded statements and help us focus on how we really feel about them.
In an interview with a counsellor, it was further emphasised that “Questions are asked for clarification and paraphrasing is done for reassurance, and to understand if the information is taken in the same way it has been expressed.”
It can thus be gathered that listeners don’t just see conversation as an exchange of anecdotes, but rather, as an opportunity to clarify the underlying issues.
A Lack of Judgement
Good listeners never moralize. They are well aware of how insane we all are. They acknowledge the existence of their own insanity well enough, to be unfazed by our deeper, darker confessions. They create for us a safe space, and reassure us that our character and dignity in their eyes are not at stake. A common fear is that being honest and vulnerable might have incredibly negative consequences. But a good listener can differentiate disagreement from judgment and criticism, and will convince us that our feelings are valid. Even if they do not necessarily agree with us, they love us either way.
The counselor, on being asked what makes a good listener, simply said “speak less, listen more, and listen beyond words.”
When we are amongst good listeners, we don’t realise what they do that feels so gratifying. By paying attention to how we feel around them, and what they do to make us feel this way, we can learn to adopt these skills and offer them to others around us.
Like the prince who learnt that the inheritance of knowledge isn’t just a collection of facts that can be absorbed without deeper engagement, we should know that listening takes effort, and understanding and is a key skill in forming healthy social bonds.
Zenger, Jack. Folkman, Joseph. ‘What Great Listeners Actually Do’. Harvard Business Review,
‘How to be a good listener’
Winbolt, Barry. ‘Becoming a great listener’