What it takes to listen well

I recently watched the miniseries Mrs America, which tells the story of the movements for and against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. As the episodes went on I was conscious that there was something missing. I thought about it for a while, and then I realised — nobody was listening. They weren’t listening to people from their own side nor were they listening to anyone fighting against them. It was frustrating to watch ever greater divisions form and little progress get made.

Why weren’t they listening? Perhaps it was a “lack of courage”, one of the reasons suggested by the psychologist Carl Rogers as why we don’t listen:

Listening with understanding means taking a very real risk. If you really understand another person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgments, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see things his way; you might find that he has influenced your attitudes or your personality. Most of us are afraid to take that risk.

If first we can get over this lack of courage, it leaves us with the question — how do we listen to understand? What follows are some of the key things I’ve learned about becoming a better listener.

Become a better listener

Give your full attention

Listening requires deep, focused attention. Sadly that’s something of a rarity in our noisy, busy world. To listen well we need to manage our distractions. To do this, we may need to think about the space we’re in and how we can minimise any physical distractions. We may also need to consider timing — if someone asks you to talk and you’re in the middle of something, what’s the likelihood that you’re actually going to give them your full attention, even if you do stop to talk. Perhaps it’s better to agree a time when they can truly be your focus.

Stay free from judgment

Rogers sees our natural urge to evaluate what someone else is saying from our personal perspective as a barrier to any meaningful communication. He encourages the listener to sit with the speaker in their world and stay free from judgment to help create an environment where the speaker is at ease. This safe environment allows the speaker to explore their thoughts and feelings without worrying what the listener thinks of them.

This can be one of the greatest challenges for listeners. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stop this tendency to judge or evaluate completely. Instead we must task ourselves with taking notice of any judgmental thoughts and choosing not to respond to them.

Avoid interrupting

Here’s a challenge for you — for the rest of the day keep a tally of the number of times you interrupt someone or are interrupted when you’re speaking. I’m willing to bet it’s so many that you’ll soon lose count.

There are many reasons why we interrupt. We think we know how a sentence will end. We worry we won’t get a chance to speak. Or we’ll forget what we want to say. We think sharing our ideas or our own experience will help.

Often our interruptions aren’t malicious, or even intentional, we just don’t think. So here’s a tip, if you find yourself eager to jump into a conversation remind your self to WAIT by asking — why am I talking?

Avoid problem solving

Most of us are keen to help people solve problems, and this often comes in the form of advice. But when someone comes to us to talk about a challenge they’re facing, are they really looking for us to give them an answer?

This calls to mind a statement from Time to Think by Nancy Kline:

Usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution — often the best one.

As listeners, we need to give people the opportunity to find their own answers. We can use questions to help aide the process, to open up new perspectives and avenues of thought. Only when they’ve exhausted all possibilities, and with their permission, can we offer advice.

Get comfortable with silence

When someone goes quiet it doesn’t mean they’re stuck, they’re more likely lost in thought. We need to be patient and embrace the silence to give people space to think.

One of the first activities I did on my coach training was a pairs exercise intended both to help us get to know each other and to experience the power of silence. We took it in turn to speak about ourselves for five minutes. While our partner was speaking, all we had to do was remain silent.

For the listener this was incredibly uncomfortable. It was a challenge to be still and silent for what felt like an eternity.

For the speaker, it was an incredibly powerful experience — to know that you wouldn’t be interrupted, to be able to think, aloud or in silence, and make connections between ideas.

Give it a try and see what holding the silence can do.

Listen with your eyes

In any conversation there’s as much non-verbal communication happening as verbal. Look for signs in a person’s body language and tone of voice. You may note how they’re sitting, whether they make eye contact, how fast or slow they’re talking etc. Keep an eye out for anything that changes as they speak. Ask yourself:

  • What are these non-verbal messages saying to you?
  • Do they align with the verbal message you’re hearing?

Check what you’ve heard

Summarising and repeating back what you’ve heard helps to confirm or clarify your understanding. By doing this you can avoid or validate any assumptions you’ve made. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, you’re looking for a mutual understanding of what has been said.

Reflecting back in this way also gives the speaker time to think, to check their own understanding of what they’ve said and gain more clarity on their situation.


That may seem like a lot to think about. Listening is a discipline and it takes practice to do it well. Keep these seven areas in mind as you listen, notice your strengths and where there’s room for improvement. Pick one or two to work on and see what benefit it makes to you and your conversations.

Feature image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

about emma

I am a coach and facilitator helping people to pause, reflect and make conscious choices about what comes next. In my writing I explore themes of personal development, reflective practice and what it means to live well.