Have you ever been in a situation where you had something important you wanted to talk about, but the person you were trying to talk to immediately start talking about themselves? Not only is it frustrating to not be able to share what you wanted to share, but it makes you less willing to try to share things with that person in the future.
This is why it is so important to be a good listener when people share their thoughts with you. The last thing you want is for someone to feel that you don’t care or make them uncomfortable when they are trying to share something difficult.
So, how do we make people comfortable to talk to us about anything?
The best way to do this is to become better at asking questions that allow the person to share how they feel about something. Not only does it let them know that you are trying to understand, but that they are safe to do so. The key is to show empathy. You don’t have to agree with the thing that’s upsetting them or exciting them to show that you care.
In the spirit of trying to help, it’s tempting to immediately offer advice. This also gives someone the impression that you’re ready for them to stop talking. Before offering advice, ask if they want it. Most people just need to know someone is listening and sympathetic so they can sort out their own feelings. This is the same with adults as it is with children. Everyone wants to feel like they’re understood.
How to be a good listening ear
The next time someone talks to you about anything, challenge yourself to only respond with questions. This might be a huge challenge because many of us are hardwired to immediately share something similar from our own lives in an effort to show we understand. When we immediately shift the focus of the conversation back to ourselves, it doesn’t show empathy as much as we think it might. Instead, it provides too great of an opportunity for us to change the topic.
By only being able to respond with questions, you create a space for them to dive deeper into the thing they wanted to share and it shows you are interested in what they have to say. Some questions you might ask could include how they feel about what they shared with you, if they had to try that same thing again what would they change, or what did they learn from their experience.
It’s okay if they need some time to answer your questions, give them space to think and respond and fight the urge to fill the silence. Often they might think they know how they feel, but it’s only on the surface. By guiding the discussion with questions, you provided an opportunity for them to think deeper about what they wanted to share. With kids, this is a great time to teach about different emotions in the moment and why they are important.
Not everyone has the same emotional bandwidth
My oldest child struggles with identifying emotions in other people as part of his high-functioning autism. Even after all these years, I often catch myself forgetting that this is a challenge for him and expect him to react differently.
The other night I was telling the kids about how one of our extended family was in the hospital. A normal person would make some attempt to show empathy or at least sympathy. Nope. The second I finished talking, he dove in to explain how his new RCA adapter would work with the retro vinyl record setup he’s been building in his room.
All it would have taken for him to show that he was listening and he cared was for him to ask one question or make a single comment. For him, it’s a matter of teaching him the appropriate response, which is something that I will need to work on. For everyone else, please take the time to listen. Feelings are important.
Discussion: Tell us about someone in your life who is an excellent listener and how it has helped you when you needed to talk.