Have you ever felt like someone isn’t actually listening to you? You know when it’s happening. You’re needing to talk about something important or just vent about your frustrations. But you can tell that the person you’re talking to just isn’t there with you. They interrupt to tell a similar story, they aren’t making eye contact, they may give unsolicited advice, or something just tells you they are waiting for you to stop talking so they can respond. If you’ve experienced this—and I think everyone has—you know what a terrible feeling it is. You don’t feel heard. You don’t feel validated. You didn’t get what you really needed in that moment.
Sometimes, we really just want someone to listen.
I don’t know whether these are culture-specific behaviors, or if it’s just human nature—but it is undeniably frustrating. Rarely do we consider how we respond to others, but it really matters in creating human connection. Sometimes we really just want someone to listen. We don’t need them to help us solve the problem or tell us what they think, but instead we just need someone to hear us.
The good news is that it’s unlikely that the person who doesn’t appear to be listening dislikes you. Instead, it’s more likely to be because they’ve been communicating like that for a long time. Maybe that’s the way their families talked—a lot of interruptions and opinions may have been the norm. It can also be the case that they just have other things on their mind or had a long day, and they aren’t as in-tune as they would normally be.
Are you “all ears”?
If you’re a believer of practicing what you preach, consider your own listening skills. As you learn for yourself how to really engage and connect with those around you, you begin to notice that in others. You’ll meet people and notice those who really make YOU feel heard. If you feel like you’re lacking good listeners in your life, below are some tips to help you be a good listening ear for others, and in turn, find those who can be a good support for you.
- Eye-contact. It doesn’t have to be constant (that would be a bit weird), but frequent eye-contact shows that you’re listening and engaged. If this feels awkward for you, focus on the spot between a person’s eyes on the forehead. To them it looks like you’re making eye contact, but it may feel a little less weird for you if you’re struggling with this.
- Wait for your turn to speak. I know it feels like you’re in elementary school when I say that, but interruptions can be so frustrating for the speaker. I’m going to speak from experience here. I’m a pretty soft-spoken person—literally, I have a quiet speaking voice and it’s very easy for someone to overpower me. When that happens (especially over and over again), you’ll see me shut down a little bit. I don’t feel heard, and it’s exhausting to try to speak over everyone else.
Interruptions happen sometimes, and that’s ok. Just be weary of doing it often, and apologize when it happens!
- Nodding & Mirroring. As a counselor, I started to notice that I unintentionally do this all of the time after a client pointed this out to me. I tend to mirror my clients’ body image as they sit across from me, and of course, nod along as they speak. While I may do it without even thinking about it, you can do this with intent. You can show someone you’re engaged and listening by turning toward, leaning in, and mirroring their body posture and gestures.
The mirroring part is particularly interesting. Infants even respond better and stay engaged longer with parents who keep their bodies in-line and facing the infant. Conversely, babies will turn away when overstimulated as if to signal that they have had enough! It’s in our human nature to use body language to convey the message that we want to send to the other person, and you can use this intentionally to show engagement!
- Asking Questions. People generally like to talk about themselves, and asking open-ended questions not only conveys that you’re listening, but it also makes the other person feel important. Asking questions shows that you’re interested in their life, and it opens up the conversation to go a little deeper. (Hint: open-ended questions that start with “what” are a great start ; “why” questions can often sound critical, so be careful with that one!)
- Communicate Understanding. When you use the above tactics, you’re automatically sending signals to the other person that you’re trying to understand them. But if you have trouble understanding someone’s problem or story, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Nobody talks just to talk. They want someone to understand!
Maybe all of the things I’ve just mentioned seem very obvious to you. If so, you’re probably already a pretty good listener. But I think there’s always room for improvement. Maybe you are good at being a listening ear for your friends, but your long-time spouse or partner may not feel as supported. Sometimes we become complacent and don’t consider the perceptions of our partner, so it’s important to revisit these basics of communication from time to time.
For Parents of All Ages
Maybe you’re a parent and your child seems to need a lot of extra attention or is acting out. Take a second to think about whether or not you show your child that you are listening. Even though they are little (and their stories can tend to drag on and on), they still need to feel heard just like we do.
Sometimes it’s not the most convenient time to stop and listen. If your child tries to get your attention when you are busy, verbalize that you hear them and you’ll be able to listen to them once you are done with whatever task you are on. Although it can seem inconvenient to do this, remember that you are the model for your child—not only for the way they properly express themselves, but how they should be treated as well. We want children to grow up knowing that they deserve to be respected, and showing that they are heard and understood is a very basic way to convey their worth.
If you’ve been affected by bad listening…
We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad listening, and it can be discouraging. Be that listening ear for others, and seek relationships with people who make you feel TRULY heard! If you struggle to find those relationships or could use an outside, neutral perspective in your life, consider finding a counselor. There’s nothing like a good counselor to make you feel heard, and seldom do we get to have interactions that are ALL about us! If you’re considering this, please reach out to us. We are here for you and ready to listen.
Megan Roberts, MA
Megan Roberts is a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern at Breaking Free Services Center for Wellness. Megan specializes in working with teens and adults in all walks of life.