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How to be a good listener

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Allowing someone to pour out their heart, without judging or taking over the conversation – that’s quite an art. Six hints for an open conversation.

1. Be attentive

If you want to listen, or someone asks for your attention, make sure you’re in a situation that makes it easy to listen. Put down the work you were doing, look the other person in the eye. If there are elements around you that make it difficult to be attentive, try to do something about them. Are you in a bar with loud music on, just suggest: ‘Why don’t we go outside for a while, so I can listen to you carefully.’

2. Avoid judgment

At first, try not to say too much. Judgment or prejudice about your partner and their story, prevents you from listening with an open mind. If you don’t judge, the other person is likely to trust you and feel safe around you, and this invites them to be completely candid and honest. Judge the person telling the story nor the people who are in this story, not even if they hurt him or her.

3. Remain calm and humble

To a friend who’s letting something off their chest, it’s not helpful if you agree to heavy emotions. It’s wise to stay calm, but you don’t have to put everything in perspective either. Tears are no reason to panic and they don’t need to be dried immediately. It’s not your job to solve a person’s problems or take away their unpleasant feelings. And there’s a place for silence. No matter how good your advice is, don’t give it until someone asks for it.

4. Be understanding

Show you understand what he or she is telling you by nodding, raising your eyebrows and uh-huh-ing. Ask questions, and be persistent if something’s unclear to you. Focus on the feelings that someone’s situation provokes. Summarize occasionally, to check whether you understand: ‘So let me get this straight…’

5. Acknowledge your own needs

Other people’s heavy life stories affect you – especially if you are an empathetic listener. If you notice that you’re getting tired, or that someone’s story brings up emotions in you, it’s OK to say so. Being a good listener doesn’t mean that you have to be available endlessly. If you feel the need for a break, let them know. And if you’ve been listening for a long time and want to let something off your chest yourself, ask the other person if they are open to that. Knowing that you’re not the only one having issues, can be even more satisfying than a one-sided therapeutic session.   

Text: Marina van Dongen - Photo: Jorge Flores