I’m a huge Oprah fan. And not because I won a car on her show (yes, that really happened). For me, what made Oprah Winfrey and her show different than any other fly-by-night talk show is that she offered more than entertainment. She shared wisdom.
During her farewell show, Oprah stood one last time before her audience of 25 years and gave quite possibly the most moving two-minute Ted Talk, long before Ted Talks were a thing. She shared with us the one lesson she had learned from interviewing and listening to more than 30,000 people from around the world. That day I had what Oprah calls an “aha” moment about how to be a better listener. The one thing Oprah said that each of those 30,000 people wanted was validation: “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?”
Add to Oprah’s wisdom what I learned from accompanying friends and families through tough times and you come up with the ways that I try to practice listening well. I wasn’t always good at it, and I still have a lot to learn today, but here are five things that I’ve found help you be a better listener.
1. Validate people’s thoughts and feelings
Without validation, the person across from you will never feel heard. Validation does not mean the same thing as agreeing with what they’re saying. It simply means that you say, in words and in gesture, “I see that this is important to you, and because it’s important to you, it’s also important to me.” That affirmation is the first step to being a good listener, and without it, a conversation could go on for hours on end, with each side never being truly heard. To express validation verbally, try saying things like, “I understand why you’re sad. It makes me sad to hear this, too.” If you don’t agree with their words or reaction, keep the focus on simply summarizing how they feel, to let them know they are heard. Leave your opinion out of it for now and try saying things like, “I see that was a difficult experience for you” or “I see this relationship means a lot to you.”
2. Don’t give advice…with a twist.
I’d be willing to guess most people in this world don’t really like hearing advice. However, some conversations between close friends or family might call for loving guidance every now and again. More important than whether or not to give advice is first deciding if that person wants advice, and if they do, when to give it in the conversation. Find this out by asking questions like, “Is there anything I can do to help you with this?” If you think they want advice, instead of telling them what to do, keep the focus on your words by starting with questions like, “Have you considered speaking to your boss directly about what you saw?” This is a safe way to gauge where the person is at with wanting advice and various solutions to the problem.
3. Don’t try to fix it.
Some people may already know how to fix their problem, but might not be ready to fix it. Either way, one thing stands true: it’s theirs to fix, not yours. This can be one of the most frustrating parts about listening. You can see so clearly how to avoid the issue or get out of the quandary altogether. But, in reality, they might not be there yet. This can be very frustrating as a listener and requires a great deal of patience. If it’s clear they’re not ready to change, try focusing on their self care. Asking questions like, “How has this been affecting you lately?” or “What have you done to de-stress throughout all of this?” puts the focus on them and hopefully will help them get to a place where they realize that fixing their problem is part of caring for themselves.
4. Do check in
Some might think that being a good listener means never interrupting someone. But there’s a difference between interrupting someone and checking in. Interrupting is rude. Checking in sends a clear message that you are engaged in the conversation, you are in fact listening, and what’s being said is important enough to you to be engaged and ask questions (validation!). Wait for a natural pause in the conversation and try saying, “So, I’m hearing you say…” or “If I’m understanding correctly, you mean…” or “When you said you were bothered by her actions, what about her actions were bothersome to you?”
5. Don’t zone out
We’ve all been there. Admittedly, I’ve zoned out on conversations with some of the most important people in my life. You might be distracted by your own thoughts, and your capacity to listen is low. If that’s true, politely dismiss yourself from the conversation, take a moment, and return after a few deep, centering breaths. Try to let go of what keeps intruding in your own mind to prevent you from listening. If the person is rambling and you find yourself drifting, consider using sentences that are part summary but also help move the story along like, “So I hear you saying the whole situation was very awkward. What did you do to navigate it?”
Being a good listener is one of life’s hardest lessons but it’s also one of the most important opportunities to understand others who are not like us. Being a good listener not only helps the person who is confiding in us but also helps us, too — challenging us to hear another person’s view on life, while deepening our relationship with them.