When we’re in trouble or suffering, having someone truly listen to us, even if they can’t offer a solution, can be a great comfort. But being a good listener isn’t as easy as it sounds. I clearly remember attending a training course where the instructor asked us to share a little about ourselves with the person sitting next to us. She then asked me to share what my partner had told me. Silence. I’d been so busy thinking about what I was saying that I hardly remembered what my partner had said, and I wasn’t alone!
There’s an old saying: “God gave us two ears and only one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Offering a listening ear to someone who needs to unburden their problems can make all the difference to how they feel.
When I think about how Jesus showed compassion to those he met, I remember times when he took time to listen. He usually began by finding a point of contact and by gently asking questions to encourage people to open up. When he met a Samaritan woman at the well, he began by asking her for a drink. When Jesus met the downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion, he asked what they were talking about, although he already knew!
Jesus’ example is a good place to start. Here are a few more skills that I try to practice to be a better listener.
You can’t give someone your full attention if you’re checking your phone or you’ve got one eye on the TV. So, find a quiet place, free from distractions, and limit the possibility of interruptions. It only takes a moment to say, “I’ll just put my phone on silent so I can focus on what you’re saying,” so they know you’re taking things seriously.
Try to remove mental distractions as well. When I’m listening to a friend, I make a deliberate effort to remind myself to focus, by mentally using phrases like, “Keep your mind on what he’s saying,” or “Remember to listen carefully.” I also try and repeat the main points in my head, to help me get a clearer picture of the problem.
Pay attention to your body language
Positive body language is critical in conveying your complete attention. I always try to face the person talking to me and make eye contact. Nodding or making other affirming gestures can also show you’re listening fully. And try to sit still – lots of fidgeting can imply that you’re bored or impatient for them to finish.
Watch your tone of voice
I try to use a quiet, measured voice to keep things flowing. A loud tone can be off-putting and perhaps make the speaker feel you’re judging them or trying to shut them down. A calm tone can be difficult to maintain if the other person is heated themselves (I had to work really hard at this when my children were teenagers!), but it will help you avoid escalation.
It’s also helpful to to use words or phrases like “I see” or “OK” to show you’re still engaged with the conversation. If you sit in silence the whole time, it might seem as though you’ve tuned out.
Focus on listening
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself framing my answer before a friend has finished explaining their problem. And to my shame, I’ve sometimes found myself thinking about something else entirely. I’ve discovered that sending up quick prayers while I’m listening often helps. For example, “God, please help me to listen carefully” or “Help me to focus fully” often keep my mind on track.
If the speaker says something I disagree with or I want to comment on, it’s tempting to leap in straight away with a passionate reply. But interrupting someone to take over the conversation breaks the flow and may even shut down their willingness to share. It’s better to make a mental note and come back to it later.
Asking questions to clarify a situation is a useful strategy, but don’t use them to interject your own views. Open-ended inquiries like, “How did that make you feel?” or “Why do you think they did that?” will encourage the speaker to reflect on the situation.
And avoid giving advice unless you’re asked for it. Again, open-ended questions can guide a friend toward finding a solution or next steps that work for them.
Mirror what they’ve said
I used to be terrible at this, rushing to show someone that I understood their situation because “the same thing happened to me,” or even worse, trying to top their problem with my own. It was only when a friend gently pointed out to me how unhelpful this was, that I realized my mistake. Everyone’s experience is unique, even if it’s similar to one you’ve been through yourself. Ultimately, a good listener is aiming to help others unburden themselves and find their own solution to a problem.
Mind your language
Avoid using platitudes that can sound as though you’re minimizing the issue, e.g., “You’ll get over it” or “Other people have it worse.” Offering comments such as “Well, I wouldn’t have done that,” or “That really wasn’t a sensible thing to do,” aren’t helpful either and will only make the teller feel worse about their problem.
Depending on the situation, it might be appropriate to pray together when you’re having a conversation. This can often be a good way to summarize the situation and reassure a friend that they’re not alone in their difficulty. I also tell the person that I’ll continue to pray for them, and I’ll be there to listen to them again. I’ve found that putting their name into my prayer app while they’re watching reassures them I really will pray.
When someone you know is in trouble or has a problem, you may not be able to change the situation, but you can listen. And often, simply being a truly listening ear can make all the difference.
Originally published Feb 4, 2019.