What makes a good listener and how to get better...

Written by Lucy Dunne

You may have always thought you were a pretty good listener. All you have to do let someone else speak and add in a few head nods, a few ‘mmm’s and ‘yeah’s and you're away - right!? Maybe not. Those responses are definitely one part of listening. Linguists describe these little responses as ‘back channeling’ which supposedly shows we are interested and engaged. Using visual and verbal cues is something we all do when listening without even really having to think about it. So what separates the good listeners from the great listeners has to be about more than just a head nod every now and then…

In our society we see the impact of listening (or not listening) most clearly in families and marriage. The Independent states that poor communication is a top reason for divorce. Why? Because we are made to be heard. When this doesn't happen, it leads to a sense of isolation. Beyond Differences, a charity which works to help teenagers feel included and valued, found that social isolation not only affects our mental health and self esteem, but it can also have physical implications Shockingly it can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease. The effects of loneliness and broken relationships are massive.
So how can we challenge these issues, make others feel valued and understood, and reflect God's love and interest for them? We can learn to listen, and actively seek to get better at it. Here are three simple things that could transform how you interact with the people in your life...

Ask Relevant Questions
Being a good listener doesn't mean you have to lock your lips and throw away the key. Quite the opposite! Listening well is also sometimes described as active listening. This makes being just that - active. It looks like not just lending an ear but responding to what is being said. Whether someone is telling you about their day or a huge issue that’s happening in their life, asking specific, responsive questions is a brilliant way to slow you're engaged. This goes beyond a distracted ‘mmm' and lets the speaker know you are fully concentrating, you're interested and you want to hear what they have to say.
Responding to people with thoughtful and relevant questions can also go beyond just showing engagement. It can bring a new perspective to the situation for the speaker. An article from the Harvard Business Review on becoming a truly great listener stated that relevant questions can ‘promote discovery and insight’, as well as ‘gently challenging old assumptions in a constructive way’. On a simpler level can also help clarify any confusion about what is being said, and provides a deeper insight into what are really thinking and feeling. Questions are a key and powerful tool when listening.

Don’t be Miss Fix It
Shocking as it may be, you do not have all the answers (which may also come as a relief). Unfortunately, there can’t always be a quick and easy solution to every problem. This can be a hard one to remember, as often, we love to resolve a situation. But this links back to the first point. By asking questions instead of giving a solution, you don’t take control of the conversation. Instead you can bring a new perspective and angle when looking at the problem, while letting the speaker process and work out their own solution. The business magazine, Forbes, explains that ‘imposing solutions’ onto people is often unhelpful. It can do more harm than good and leave your companion feeling disheartened. Not every issue can be solved in one conversation and often people just need someone to listen while they work out their next step.
Jesus also happened to be the King of Questions as well as the Jews (see what we did there?). He loved to turn the tables on the people he spoke with and get them to really think for themselves. And if Jesus did it, you know pretty good practise to imitate!

Time to care
This has to be the hardest one of all. It's one small word but big ask. The truth is we will never really be good listeners unless we care deeply for the people who are talking. Jesus was passionate, to the extreme, for those who came to him to seek advice. He was full of compassion, consistently sacrificing his time to bless the people He encountered (Matt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32).
If we aren't careful, being good at listening can just become a whole list of conversational rules which we struggle to remember and put into action. The Harvard Business Review understands that listening is good for business -studies have shown it increases productivity and morale in workers. However, their articles have missed something. God calls us to listen not because it benefits us, but to bless and serve others. When we really care, we invest in people. This means we will want to support them and we will naturally want to engage and listen to them.
Why nor pray that God will give you compassion for the people you encounter in your day to day life. God is the only one who can change our hearts so that when we are listening to others, we do it not because we have to, but because we want to.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash