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What do we mean by listening?

Information is only meant to flow in one direction

Police Officer Peter Grant interviewing a witness in Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch[1]

Isn’t it simple?

Listening is simple, you hear stuff, right? Not exactly, listening is about how you understand another person. It’s processing what they are saying and making them feel listened to. We all need to listen. This might be in our everyday life, family, friends, children or work colleagues. There are also roles that need listening skills, such as researcher, trainer or mental health first aider. Those are all roles that I do, so I’ve had a fair bit of listening practice.

Step 1 – Shut up

This is key, if you are talking you can’t be listening. Sometimes people feel the need to fill gaps of silence or offer solutions. Filling that space takes it away from the other person. If you are someone who likes to talk a lot, you will need to make a conscious effort to stop talking. If someone is telling you their story, it’s their story. Jumping in with anecdotes about your experiences makes it your story.

Some people are more hesitant or slow to talk. If you fill every gap they will never get the opportunity to speak and may feel intimidated. If there is silence, people may feel more of a need to fill the gap, they may just need you to give them time. People process things at different speeds. Even if you can think of instant answers other people may not work that way.

Step 2 – Listen to understand

You need to be able to process what the person is saying or not saying.

To make someone feel comfortable so they will talk to you show that you are listening and understand. You can do this using brief words of acknowledgement like ‘yes’, ‘I see’ or even 'umm'. Your body language should reflect your interest. This could be nodding at appropriate points, looking at them and not allowing yourself to be distracted. Mobile phones should be off and you can always say, ‘I will just put my phone on silent’.

Humans can’t multitask. Lots of people declare to be super multi-taskers it’s not something that humans are good at. If you are thinking about what to say next, something clever or how to solve a problem you aren’t listening to understand.

Step 3- Ask for clarification

Because you are listening to understand its ok to ask for clarification. If you aren’t sure what someone has said you might either say:
‘Sorry, I am not sure I got that, did you say….’ or ‘Sorry to interrupt, I just want to make sure I got this right, do you mean that…’

Repeating back or summarising what someone has said is a powerful way to reinforce your understanding. It will also make the person feel you are listening to them. Then you check you got it right, pause for them to answer and ask them to carry on, thanking them.

‘Is that what you meant? ... Thanks for that, please do carry on’.

If you do need to ask questions try and keep them open. That means avoiding questions where the response could either be yes or no. Say things like ‘Could you tell me a bit more about what happened? or ‘What do you think about that?’ These are open questions. Whereas ‘Was your colleague aggressive?’ is a closed question as well as being leading.

Step 4 – Empathise

You don’t need to solve people’s problems and sometimes you can’t anyway. You may think the person has brought a situation on themselves or behaved badly, that doesn’t matter. Empathising is about feeling with that person. If you are listening to someone you can show empathy with their emotions and feeling. Things you could say are ‘that sounds really difficult’ or ‘that must be very upsetting'. Empathy steps back from judgement and tries to step into that person’s emotions at that moment. Brené Brown empathy video really brings this to life.

Step 5 – Any exceptions

Keeping quiet or shutting up, listening to understand and asking for clarification works well in most situations. Sometimes, more or different engagement may be needed. People may be looking for approval or permission or they may just not be used to talking. Sometimes there may be a power imbalance such as with vulnerable adults or where there are cultural differences. Where appropriate and if you are going to know in advance who you are talking to, do some background research for different cultures. There is also a plenty of guidance on working with vulnerable adults.

Step 6 – Practice

The way to get good at anything is through practice. If you are in a work environment you might be able to practice with colleagues, you can tell them you want to practice your listening skills. Start out with simple things that aren’t too emotive like ‘Tell me about your weekend’. In some roles, such as researchers you may be able to record your conversations if you get consent. Reviewing recordings is a good way to get an idea of who is doing the most talking and to refine your skills.

Practice with your family, just focus on the person you are speaking too. This is active listening, if you want to know more there are loads of web resources. You can google ‘active listening’.

If you do the 2 day Mental Health First Aid course you will learn about listening skills and get to practice. Sunsurfer offer Mental Health First Aid training for England and Scotland.


[1] Police Officer Peter Grant interviewing a witness in Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

[2] Brené Brown empathy video

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