When someone shares their stories, problems or personal events with you, they are building a bridge of trust between themselves and you. In this article, we will look at 10 quick tips that can improve your listening skills so your empathy, care and consideration is reflected in your interaction. The more you offer these, the more strong connection, trust and communication will flourish between your friend and you, however it is important to not pressurise people to share with you what they might be uncomfortable to share with you.
1. Remove barriers & distractions
To help establish the connection, building of the trust bridge, remove any distractions such as phone, laptops, paperwork etc., and where possible keep the space clear between both of you. Apart from the obvious reasons such as unpredictable notifications on phone, clutter can sometimes make people lose focus. In addition, it can give an impression that you are busy and you have work to do, and as such are not available to listen to the person talking.
If you think that the conversation can involve the other person becoming emotionally upset, have a glass of water and a box of tissue papers at a reachable distance.
2. Avoid judgements & conclusive statements
Many times people forget to share all relevant pieces of information. This is more likely to happen in times of stress. Giving them space where they can share what they are going through without receiving any judgement, criticism, negative remarks can help them paint a picture of what they are going through.
Let people finish first with what they want to share. Offering criticism over something that has already happened is not going to undo the things, or make matters any easier. People take decisions according to what feels alright to them at a particular time. By going into the past, we can often inhibit their sharing process as they may start to become defensive. Statements such as “If you had not done this..”, “I told you before but you don’t listen”, “You always end up in situations like that” etc., should be avoided as well.
3. Keep the focus on them
While it is good to share one or two examples from your personal life, it is always good to keep the focus on the other person. Sometimes the person sharing their story with us may not have anyone else in their social circle to talk to; by keeping the focus on them, you can offer them the space and opportunity to express themselves as much as they will like, without having to listen to your side of the story.
4. Asking questions
The relevant questions can make the person telling you their story feel that you are genuinely interested in listening to them. It is wise to choose questions without sounding as we are trying to interrogate them or finding it difficult to believe them. Explain the reason of asking specific questions if the person appears unsure, so they can understand your perspective and answer accordingly.
5. Check in with them about their feelings
It is important to check in if you are understanding how the person might be feeling as they share different parts, events and stories. There might be different feelings and emotions involved especially if they are facing a situation for a long period, their focus and priorities may start to differ depending on what’s at stake. If you are unsure how they might be feeling or cannot relate to them based on lack of experience about the situation which they might be facing, use statements like “I can only imagine” to show your empathy and concern.
6. Be careful of reflecting their emotions back
In Neuro-linguistic programming, it is often suggested to mirror back the emotions to the person with whom you are interacting with. While it may or may not be a useful strategy in some cases, as a caution be mindful of what emotions you may try to reflect back. For example, sometimes people while sharing their stories might laugh as a way to criticise their own actions and decisions, if you laugh with them as well, it can give an impression that you are affirming that they took wrong decisions. Remember that it is best to refrain away from any judgemental attitude and remarks to help people share what they need to.
7. Check in with what support they want
Some people like to share because it helps them unload what’s going on in their mind and lives, whereas others like to discuss to seek answers, solutions and help. It is important to check in with the person who is sharing their story in regards to what is their expectations. If they just want someone to listen to them without offering any advice, respect their choice and refrain away from any suggestions. Please note that this is also culturally dependant. In some Asian cultures, just listening without offering any suggestions can be viewed as a sign of lack of interest, care and empathy. If you are expected to offer a solution, always encourage the person to think through e.g. “If you decide to go down this path, what it may look like for you?”, “How do you think you can address this situation?” etc. This way people can take ownership of the decision they take.
8. Repeating back what’s been told to you
Another technique to show that you are listening and paying attention is to repeat keywords used by the person, ideally in their own words, so they feel that we remember what they have confided in us. If the person is sharing their story to seek advice from you, then it is not advised to repeat back the keywords as frequently as you may do for a person who just wants to share their story with you. It is because your communication partner may be expecting an answer, an advice from you, and if you keep repeating back what’s been said, they may feel that you are not understanding their problem.
9. Respect if they don’t want to share something
As mentioned above, do not put people in situations where they feel compelled to share what they might not be comfortable with. If they say that they do not feel that they need to share parts of information, then respect their choice. Chances are that with time, they will let you know other details as they will become more comfortable.
10. Offer encouragement for sharing
Sharing and talking about important stuff takes a lot of effort. The person is literally taking a leap of faith to share something that they may not have shared with anyone else, they are trusting you with their information. Reciprocate their trust in you by keeping things confidential and reassuring them that what they discussed will remain with you, especially if they have requested you for this. Also tell them how much you value them to be able to talk about important and difficult matter. Before you wrap up, it is good to end on a positive note, words of hope and encouragement.
Written by Muhammad Wasif Haq (2004)
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