Hello, all! Thanks for having some patience with the lack of an episode last week. I think it was worth it because this is a packed episode. In this week’s episode, I dive deep into my favorite tips and techniques to make you a better communicator and a better listener. In the field, we call these “active listening” techniques and they are the fundamental techniques that all therapists learn to help people open up and trust them.
Communication skills are extremely important. They are the bread and butter of what I do as a therapist and a mental health professional in general. They are also vital for success in a variety of contexts like business, relationships, and to be a good friend or family member. In this episode, I want to share some of my top tips for becoming a better communicator and more specifically a better listener. If you’d to see my analysis of listening skills like this in practice, check out my psychologist reacts videos.
So for this episode, I’ll talk a little bit about general tips that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think about when it comes to having conversations with people. Then I will get into specific active listening techniques that you can use. These will help demonstrate that you care about the person you are talking to AND it will help them feel comfortable to elaborate and go deeper with you.
General communication tips
Okay. First some general tips. These will be very helpful for people in relationships, but these tips also apply when talking to roommates, family members, bosses, etc.
You don’t only have one shot
I’ve talked about this one on the podcast several times before. It’s important to remember that you don’t only have one shot to get things right when it comes to conversations. It’s normal to procrastinate when you have something important to talk about. You can build up the potential conversation in your head so much that it becomes this huge thing and you become totally afraid of actually just talking about it. You don’t want to say something wrong or get a response that’s different than the one you are looking for. You don’t have to say it perfectly.
You should be thoughtful about your words and the feelings of the person you are talking to, but at some point the words just need to be said. If they come out somewhat wrong or you don’t reach the resolution that you were hoping for, that’s okay. You can continue to come back to the topic again. I’d say that it’s pretty rare that important conversations are just one-and-done. You introduce the topic, have an initial discussion, argument, etc., and then you both spend some time with the topic and conversation simmering in the back of your mind. You are both trying to problem solve and figure out the best way to make sense of the situation and move forward. This can lead to even more productive conversations when you return to the topic later on.
Pay attention to their emotional state
The next tip is to pay attention to the emotional state of the other person. This is as simple as taking a moment to sit back and observe before leaping into a conversation. How do they look? What sort of body posture do they have? Do they seem flustered? Are they in the middle of working on something else? Are they pacing and agitated? Try to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they are feeling for a second. At the same time, it’s really important not to assume that you KNOW what they are feeling. That’s called mind reading and that’s one of the thinking traps that we talked about in episode 211.
Here’s a scenario that I see a lot that can get you into trouble: let’s say you want to talk to your partner and you notice that they are rushing around, maybe they slammed a door a little hard, or otherwise seemed to demonstrate that they were mad. One way to acknowledge this is to go, “Why are you so mad? Can you calm down so we can talk?” If some of you bristled listening to that, you aren’t alone. That’s a great way to piss someone off. Even if they ARE mad, they would still probably be pretty irked that you lead with it.
A better way is to acknowledge that you see something going on and want to know more. You might say, “Hey… I wanted to talk to you about something, but I wanted to check in first. I noticed you seem like you’re acting a little different tonight. Am I just imagining things or are you feeling some stuff?”. So when you are able to ascertain some idea about their state from observing or asking them, the next step is to use that information to decide how to proceed. In some cases, you may want to wait for a better time to talk about something. If I notice that my wife’s eyes are glazed over because the kids are driving her bonkers and she clearly can’t concentrate on anything, I probably shouldn’t jump into a conversation about finances. Other times, you just want to approach to conversation with the context of how they are feeling. Keep it in mind and adjust the tone and way you speak based on that.
Listen first and don’t interrupt
Interrupting is something that frequently gets on people’s nerves. Talking over someone or jumping in with your own thoughts when either the other person hasn’t finished or didn’t want your perspective in the first place is a great way to turn the conversation into an argument or make them stop talking entirely. Your first instinct should always be to listen. Give them a thorough chance to talk and hear them out. If they have clearly said what they want to say and are not elaborating on their own, you can certainly jump in and we will talk about ways to keep the conversation going in a second, but don’t jump the gun. You have time. Even if it’s something that makes you feel defensive or any other sort of strong emotion, you are going to be better able to respond if you let the other person get their thoughts out first.
One strategy that I like is to let someone talk, nod along, demonstrate my concern, and care through nonverbal language, and then when there is a significant pause that’s where I might jump in. If I want to ask if they even want my feedback I might say, “I hear you. Do you want me to say what I think about it or just hear you out?”. If it’s a situation where I really feel like I need to say my piece, I will still try to listen first and then say something like, “I have some things to say about that. Do you mind if I tell you what I think?” Obviously the tone of the conversation matters and there is a difference between someone you are talking to in a constructive way and an argument with someone who is treating you poorly and not showing you respect. The point here is that you will have your chance to speak and you will have your chance to address what has been said. You don’t need to jump the gun. Listen first.
Active listening strategies
Now on to some specific strategies for “active listening”.
Let’s first talk about a skill that has nothing to do with what you say, which is nonverbal behaviors. There are a variety of things that we do with our bodies that communicate something to the other person. One most of us are somewhat aware of is nodding. Let me preface all of this by saying that there are definitely cultural differences in nonverbal communication. The amount of space between speakers, the way you nod your head, the amount of eye contact etc is definitely influenced by culture (among other factors). This is an American-centric view, so please do any mental translating that might be necessary to make this fit for you.
Nodding is not only a way to indicate that you agree with something. When someone is speaking, nodding helps them see that you are listening and you want them to continue, even though you aren’t interjecting verbally. Now, in my experience there are different kinds of nods. If you have your head just sort of bobbing along the whole time at a steady pace, that can actually sometimes be an indicator that you are tuned out, just like going “mmhmm. mmhmm. mmhmm”. Ideally, your nods should represent your own internal process. If something is interesting or surprising, your nod should be bigger. Nodding at the end of a phrase or statement also gives the person permission to continue, showing that you are still following along and they haven’t lost you.
Your body posture is also a way of communicating. Often it is suggested that you have open body posture, no crossed limbs, lean forward slightly etc. I think that can come off as a little fake. But at the very least, you should be aware of what your posture is communicating. Imagine someone slouched down in their chair with their legs crossed at the ankles and their arms folded across their chest. This is what I might see if I have a teenager for therapy that is pissed that they have to be there. Not very inviting and it sort of puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, you want to try to communicate something positive with your posture. You might lean forward in your seat to indicate interest. Or you might lean back and rest your arms on the armrests to show that this is a comfortable setting and they can let their guard down a bit.
Your face is also an amazing tool for communication. Facial expressions can say so much to a person without you ever actually having to jump in and say anything. Raised eyebrows might indicate a “wow” reaction, whereas one raised eyebrow might indicate suspicion. If someone was talking about something shady that their ex-roommate did to them, I might raise one eyebrow while they are describing a scenario to show that I am right along with them in feeling incredulous about the way their ex-roommate acted. In school, I remember being taught the “face hug”. That’s not a euphemism or an Alien reference. It’s something that is used in therapy a lot when you can’t just get up and hug your client all the time. If they are talking about something vulnerable and emotional such as how bad it hurts to have lost their parents, you might show a very sympathetic look on your face. For me this would be head tilted slightly to the side, brows furrowed, and sort of a sad half-smile. For you, it might look different. But it’s a more complex facial expression that shows them you understand the gravity of what they are talking about.
This isn’t only the case in relationships. Think about a service setting like a restaurant. Let’s say you are having an issue with the service or a dish that was served and the manager comes over. If they walk up and stand with their hip jutting out and arms crossed over their chest, they are essentially communicating to you that they are just waiting for you to make up some bullshit problem. Instead, if they kneel down or pull over a chair and sit with their body leaning in slightly and their hands clasped loosely near their lap, that indicates that they are going to take a minute to actually hear you out.
I know it can feel a little odd when you start to pay attention to these things and that’s normal. Most first-year therapy students talk about feeling very robotic and sometimes even getting worried that they are doing their nonverbals wrong. But just noticing what you do and what you see others do and making slight tweaks to the way you intentionally use your nonverbals can make a big difference.
Open-ended questions and prompts
I’m going to ask a similar question in two different ways. Think about whether you can tell which is better and why:
- “Do you have any issues with drinking?”
- “Tell me a bit about your drinking habits.”
Let’s imagine that I was asking this in a clinical interview and the person that I was interviewing was in the habit of drinking about a bottle of hard liquor per day by themselves. They may perceive that they have no issues with their drinking because they get through the day, they are able to function at their job, and they haven’t run into any legal trouble. But if you were to ask the first question, they would just say “no.” Instead, if you asked them to describe their current drinking, they might describe drinking that much very nonchalantly. In that situation, my surprise might be apparent, which may cause them to say “you’re acting just like my wife”, which would be an important conversation to discuss the way that other people in their family feel about their drinking habits.
This is the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. Sometimes you need to ask a closed-ended question when you want to know specific information. For instance, have you recently thought about harming yourself? In most cases, though, an open-ended question is going to help someone elaborate. In everyday life, this can be as simple as asking “how was your day?” instead of “did you have a good day?”. Sometimes when you ask a closed-ended question, it comes off as if you want to hear a specific response. Like if you ask a question that is phrased like “You didn’t ____ did you?” There is clearly a certain response that you’re looking for. In dating, the closed-ended question thing happens a lot. You might hear someone ask “Are you into comics?” “Do you play games?” “Do you like sports?” etc. You would likely have a much more rich conversation if you were to say, “What do you do in your free time?” or “What do you do when you’re not working?”
Similarly, if someone describes a situation to you such as their best friend getting a promotion to a new department at work when they are still in the same position, asking a closed-ended question like “Oh did that make you sad?” might close them off to elaboration. Instead, you could ask, “Oh yeah? They got promoted but you didn’t? How are you feelin’ about that?” Much more room for exploration and they can be more specific. They might describe how they are proud of their friend but actually pissed at their employer for not recognizing their own efforts.
Restatements are the silliest active listening skill but also probably the most important. Restatement is exactly what it sounds like. Repeating what someone said back to them. Most of the time, you are not repeating everything they said back to them, but even repeating the last thing can show the other person that you are listening and that you are interested in them continuing. For example, if someone were to say, “I’m really excited about going off to college but I’m kind of nervous too”, you can simply restate “excited but also nervous?” This would prompt them to explain that they have never been on their own before and there are certain things that they are worried about getting wrong. Similarly, if someone was talking to you about their issues with their partner and said “I wish that I would just be treated with the respect that I deserve” you might simply reply say “respect?” And that would cause them to continue, saying something like “Yeah! I just feel like I’m taken for granted and my own happiness is never considered when they make decisions. It feels disrespectful and I’m fed up with it.”
There are some exercises that you can practice with a friend who won’t get too annoyed where you just keep restating the last thing they say. So in the example we just went through you can just keep going and say “fed up?” and they will elaborate on how they feel like they are running out of patience with their partner and that they need to change or else…. to which you reply “or else?” and on and on. Often, restatements are more of a paraphrasing. One amazing way to show someone that you are paying attention and that you want to hear what they have to say is to take a big statement of theirs and condense it down to the primary elements. These types of restatements are often led by saying “it sounds like…”, “what your saying is…”, “So…”, or “What I’m hearing is…”
I have a lot of success with restatements like this in therapy. If you summarize well, the person might be really impressed by how much you get it. If I have a client that is describing their everyday life and says, “I wake up… usually a little late, try to get breakfast ready for everyone, get the kids ready, drive them to school, try to remember to put deodorant on, get out the door, usually forget my wallet or something, and then get the kids to school late, and barely have a chance to breathe before I get home. By that time I’m so wiped from everything that I can’t even remember what I needed to do with my day.” I might paraphrase all of that by saying, “Wow. It sounds like it’s so hectic managing everyone else in the house that you hardly even have time to think of yourself.” To which they would probably go “Yes! You get it. It’s crazy and I don’t know what to do.”
Restatements are also a sneaky way to guide the conversation because you get to choose which part of the other person’s statements that you want to restate. In the example we just went through, I could have focused on a different aspect of what my client said and instead restate by saying, “Wow, you guys have a very busy lifestyle with all of those things you need to do each morning.” It’s a subtle shift, but you can consciously choose where you’d like the other person to elaborate by zeroing in on certain aspects of what they said.
Let’s do another example. Let’s say you are talking to your friend about living with their parents and they said “I have these crazy long days at work dealing with rude clients all day. Then I get home and my parents are instantly bitching at me to get stuff done around the house and to call family members back. I’m just like can I have a second before you come at me like that please?” To this, I might say something like “Dang. So they just jump straight into demanding things of you without even thinking about how wiped you might be from work?”
Restating or paraphrasing what is said is great, but you can take things a step further by reflecting the underlying feeling behind what someone said. When someone speaks to you, there is the fact of what is said, but there is also the underlying emotion behind their statements. A very clear example of this is when you ask someone how they are and they huff and go “fine.” Clearly they are not fine. When you can demonstrate that you understand how someone feels based on what they say, that communicates that you are really paying attention and care about their emotional experience as well.
Here’s the thing, it can be a little scary to feel like you are taking guesses about how someone feels. And you should be intentional with this. You don’t need to just reflect the feeling behind literally everything they say. BUT you also don’t have to be right. An interesting thing that happens in therapy is that sometimes incorrectly identifying the underlying emotion of what someone says is an avenue to work toward a deeper understanding. I’ll provide some examples of both.
Let’s say that you have a friend that is a woman in a place of business that consists mostly of men. She might say something like “Phew it was a day. There was this staff meeting and it was my whole team that was called in. I actually had a lot of ideas to bring to the table, but Josh and Tim just kept talking over me and the CEO of the company basically pretended like I wasn’t there.” There are a lot of options to keep someone like this elaborating. You could certainly use restatement by saying “The just ignored you?” But if you wanted to dig deeper and make them feel really heard you might say, “So it was a frustrating day for you” or “It sounds like you’re feeling undervalued”. If you’re on the mark, that means you are conveying what is called “accurate empathy”. You are reflecting how they feel on the inside. This can be exceptionally powerful when they haven’t found the exact words for how they feel. The person in this example might go, “Yeah! Oh man. Undervalued is exactly how I feel. Like looking at the company overall it’s hard to not think that maybe it’s just because I’m a woman. Either way, it makes me feel like garbage.” As always with these skills, you can take it further. If you want to keep digging in you might say, “It feels terrible to think you might be discriminated against…” Which could very well be a great prompt for the friend to talk about some really important stuff.
I said earlier that you don’t always have to be right in your assessment, as long as you are actually paying attention and your reflection isn’t totally out of left field. In this scenario, let’s say that you reflected with something like “It sounds like you are feeling pretty conflicted about what to do.” But this might not totally reflect how they are feeling and that’s okay. I can see a situation where the friend says, “Actually no. Not conflicted at all! I feel fired up.” This can allow you to get a deeper understanding of how she actually feels. “Fired up? Yeah? Tell me about that. What do you want to do about it?” This could allow her the opportunity to talk about how she wants to shake things up and make institutional change. Awesome stuff.
The last one that I want to talk about today is silence. This is an interesting one. A lot of people, especially people who tend to be anxious HATE silence. They don’t think of it as a skill to use in conversation. They think of it as an indicator that you lack conversational skill. They consider it an awkward lull.
In reality, silence is a very very powerful skill in conversation. I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed but sometimes your thoughts take a little while to bubble up to the surface. Sometimes you have an immediate response to a question but as you have some time to think about it, your answer actually develops or changes somewhat. Sometimes you can’t think of a good answer to something right away, but if you push yourself you might actually find that you do have an answer. These are all reasons to use silence.
Talking TOO much can cause the other person to shut down or not give them enough room to elaborate. Let’s say you ask someone how their visit to their grandparent’s house was and they say, “Ugh not so good” and then seem to leave it at that. One strategy would be to say “Oh I’m sorry. That’s too bad. Well my day was blablablabla” and fill the space. Instead, you might just be silent. You can look at them inquisitively and say “Yeah?…” Just give them a few seconds. In certain circumstances, silence can even bring out some strong emotion. People often try to avoid the way that they feel. So when they are given the space to sit with their own thoughts you might be surprised about what comes out. I often see this from clients when they come up with a surprisingly nonchalant response to something that should be kind of serious.
Let’s say in this situation, their grandparent was actually in the hospital and this was probably the last time that they will get to see them. If you asked them how the visit went and they said something like, “Oh it was alright,” this might be a prime opportunity to use some silence. Give them a few moments and sooner than you know it, their eyes start welling up with tears and they just want to break down in your arms. This is one that can be tough to master. When you are in a higher intensity situation like you are a beginning therapist or you are anxious to talk to the person you are talking to, every second can feel like an eternity. I would challenge you to try even taking a 5-second pause sometimes. Count in your head and see what happens. It might feel like a loooong time, but it’s just five seconds. As a general principle for this one, just keep it in the back of your mind that you don’t need to fill every single little silence that happens. Sometimes intentionally giving the person a little space works wonders.
That’s a wrap
And that’s it for today. Hopefully these tips were helpful to you. They can make a huge difference in a relationship, when interviewing someone for a podcast, or when working customer service. There are other principles out there, but these are some of the bread and butter techniques that will really elevate your conversational skills and turn you into a better listener. If you wanted to look up more information, look up helping skills or active listening skills. And again, check out my therapist reacts videos for a live breakdown of these skills in action.
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