Listening Tips

Confident African American psychiatrist listening while in a discussion with unrecognizable female.

Avoid these common listening pitfalls. These practical tips will help you hone your listening skills.

I think about what I want to say next rather than about what the other person is saying.

  • Set a goal of being able to repeat the last sentence the other person has said.
  • Remind yourself that your primary goal as a listener is to understand, not to fix.
  • When you notice that happening, try to shut off those thoughts, or jot a note down as a reminder of something you want to share when appropriate and bring yourself back to a place of listening fully.

I interrupt or show signs of impatience as I wait for the other person to finish talking.

  • Focus on what is being said, not what you want to say.
  • Slow down and don’t highjack the conversation. Remember your issues are not the subject of discussion.
  • Allow yourself time to formulate your response after the other person finishes speaking.

I give advice too soon. I suggest courses of action or solutions to problems before the other person has fully explained his or her perspective.

  • Consider that the other person may primarily need to be heard and understood.
  • Ask powerful questions that encourage the other person to offer ideas.
  • Pause and think before you jump into solution mode. Remember the other person most likely knows the answer or has the solution, they need you to ask questions that draw it out of them.

I tend to talk significantly more than the other person talks.

  • Apply the 80:20 rule. Do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking.
  • Periodically paraphrase what you have heard the other person say: “Let me see if I heard you correctly…”.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. It gives the other person a chance to continue and gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.

I make it a point to fill any silences.

  • Ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable with silence.
  • Allow time during the conversation for both of you to reflect and collect your thoughts. Reflection is the key to learning.

I am uncomfortable or at a loss when the other person expresses emotions.

  • Remember that emotions can provide important data. They can tell you what’s behind the spoken words.
  • Pay attention to the tone of voice, body language, and the use of specific words
  • Name the emotions as you notice them: “You seem worried about…tell me more about it.”
  • Be empathetic and don’t make the individual feel embarrassed about expressing their emotions.

I have a difficult time understanding what people are trying to say.

  • Use open-ended, clarifying and probing questions.
  • Ask people to give you the essence of what they’re trying to say. Repeat what you hear, and invite corrections and additions.
  • If others are present, ask someone else to state what he or she heard.
  • A phrase like, “It sounds as though…” and “Is that an accurate statement?” help ensure you are both on the same page.

I have a difficult time concentrating on what is being said.

  • Turn toward the other person, make eye contact, and remove things in front of you that may distract you.
  • With permission from the other person, take notes to help you remember important points.

I avoid asking questions that would encourage the other person to talk more.

  • Be clear about why you are having a conversation – clarify the goal of the conversation.
  • You might ask a person who tends to be long-winded to list the topics he or she wants to discuss and give you the list in advance.
  • Suggest a time and a place for the conversation where you can be relaxed and unhurried.

I ask questions for which I already have the answers.

  • If you already have the answer don’t ask the question. This will make the other person feel manipulated and will create a lack of trust.
  • If you have a possible answer, offer it and encourage the other person to reflect on its potential strengths and shortcomings.

Adapted from Active Listening by Michael H. Hoppe, Center for Creative Leadership