Is it possible to learn how to become a good listener? Does it even matter?
Humans Are Not Naturally Good Listeners
My mind goes back to a mini van in the country of Jordan. It’s dark and we’ve spent all day listening to tales of broken lives. We are driving back to the capital city of Amman, our stomachs filled with chicken shawarma, our minds and hearts whirling from voices laced with trauma.
Our interpreter is talking.
“This is the problem. People and companies don’t care. They want to write a check and then forget what’s happening. They want someone else to deal with it so they can forget about the whole thing but still say Our Business Cares, or whatever slogan they have.”Page 163, Voices of Syria.
As humans, most of us are born with the skill of hearing. But not with the skill of being a good listener.
You can’t help hearing. You have to put forth effort to listen. And often, we don’t think listening is that important. We think giving someone money or a gift matters. But why would listening matter?
Well, if you give someone money, or any gift, without knowing what they really need, two unpleasant things could happen.
- First, they might misuse the gift, because it really doesn’t matter that much to them.
- Second, you will go away feeling like you did something good, your conscience approving you until next year, like the companies our interpreter referenced above.
I can hear my accountant brother reminding me that a lot of organizations rely on distant donors and are often crying for money. I’m sure he’s right – most people have to outsource some of their listening to people they trust. If a brother or sister in church, or in an organization we trust, knows of someone with a need, there’s nothing wrong with just giving a gift.
But sometimes we can do better, especially in our personal lives. Oddly enough, my textbook from mental health class in nursing school provides excellent advice on listening. Using this resource (Essentials of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing by Varcarolis and Halter) and drawing from my own experiences, I have compiled this list.
Want to be a good listener? Try one or all of these tips!
1. Just Ask
It is truly amazing what comes out when you just have the courage to ask. “Can you tell me your story? I’ve heard some bits and pieces about it, but I would like to hear more.” You will get rejected occasionally too. But in my experience, not often.
2. Make your time boundary clear at the beginning
Say, “I have about 30 minutes right now.” Trust me. It is hard to get away sometimes! And you won’t feel like talking again if you aren’t true to your own boundaries. If you are dying to leave because someone else is waiting for you, you won’t be able to provide good active listening.
3. Don’t be afraid of silence.
Often people really want to tell their story, but it feels awkward until they get warmed up. Take a deep breath and say, “Take your time.”
This might offend a few people (um – polite people like Canadians?), but in general storytellers like when you are so engaged with what they are saying that you want it to be clarified. Such as, “Wait. Did you just say that he kept his mother’s body in a refrigerated coffin?” (This topic is actually taken from this week’s episode of Voices of Survival.)
If someone gives you a rambling, disjointed story, try paraphrasing in your own words. Try, “So you are saying that your wife ran away with your best friend, and they stole a leather coat with cocaine in the pocket?” (Yup, another one.)
6. Restate Directly
If you want more information about something, sometimes just repeating what the person said as a question works well. If they say, “I wanted to kill myself at that time,” you could say, “You wanted to kill yourself?” Note: if you think I am being needlessly dark, try listening to a few people in your own neighborhood. Unfortunately, you will probably hear much the same.)
7. Reflect Using Slightly Different Words
When someone says, “I never get appreciated for what I do,” try “You sound as if people have disappointed you many times.”
8. Listen for the Story Behind the Story
Oh, this is my favorite thing of all! People often cannot discern what is most interesting about their own lives. They might brush over something highly interesting. You need to be listening “on your feet” to catch these hints and then expand on them, possibly with this next technique:
People often guard their painful memories. If someone says, “My dad always beat up my mom, so that was just normal,” try “Give me an example of a time your dad beat up your mom.” With that invitation, the cover may come off of the secret cauldron.
10. Use Listening Words
Just listen and use lots of “uh-huh,” and “wow,” and “I see,” and “that must have been terrible.”
11. Thank the storyteller
It is a great honor to hear someone’s story. I had two cases just this week where I listened to people hesitant to talk. I am immensely grateful they gave me their time.
Email subscribers, your free printable of this list is attached at the bottom of your email. Or you can get a printable here.
P.S. Captain Garrison came to Christ because of a good listener! This Thursday, July 23, it will be 319 years since the captain was born in the wilderness of Staten Island, New York. I am offering the book 23% off this week only with code 319YEARS. Happy Birthday, Nicholas! You also get to see fun photos of Captain Garrison readers when you hit the button below.
I just got an order for Captain Garrison from a library in Ohio. Consider asking your library to buy the book!
I just read Captain Garrison to my sixth-tenth grade students this school year and we all really enjoyed it! My boys were drawing ships on everything. 🙂 I really appreciated your discreet attitude toward sin and encouragement to wholly follow the Lord. We learned a lot about history and geography too.Melodie
Captain Garrison was a good book because it showed how any life can be turned around no matter what.Benson, age 12, who read Captain Garrison twice