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  • Writer's pictureKelly Wright

Listen Up! 5 Tips for Becoming an Effective Listener

By Kelly Wright

I’m a professional listener, but that doesn’t mean I’m always good at it.

Have you attended one of Matt Gordon’s talks on listening? If you haven’t, let me highly recommend it. It’s funny (because it’s Matt), it’s informative, and it’s challenging. Early in the talk, Matt asked anyone who thought they were a good listener to raise their hand. I didn’t raise my hand, but I wanted to.

Of course, I’m a good listener. I’m a professional listener. I have graduate degrees in counseling, which I believe could translate into degrees in listening.


I was tempted to raise my hand, but I’m glad I didn’t. Just because I’m a professional listener, doesn’t mean I’m always good at it.

Getting a degree in counseling means I studied a lot of psychological theories. One theorist I respected and resonated with was Carl Rogers. He was the founder of client-centered or person-centered therapy. He believed effective counseling included empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. A foundational tool for Rogers’ theory was active listening. Rogers believed that through active listening, positive change could occur.

Did you catch that? Positive change can occur in our lives when people actively listen to us!

Active listening creates a safe space for the speaker and encourages both listener and speaker to be authentic and genuine. When people don’t feel safe to share or if they believe they will be judged or rejected, they won’t feel secure to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Active listening is the goal. Sadly, most people that listen to us and that we listen to only capture about 25% efficiency of what we are really saying.

You’ve experienced this disruption to listening as have I.

It might look like the time when you were talking to your friend about a difficult situation you were facing and when you took a breath to gather your thoughts, they reply that they totally get how you feel because they are facing a difficult situation, too. The shift moves from what you just shared to what your friend is sharing.

This doesn’t mean your friend doesn’t love and care about you. It means that the conversation hit the 25% efficiency point and when that happens, it feels abrupt and hurtful.

There are times when we listen better than 25%. Usually when we are expecting something at the end of our listening like a test; when we are meeting with authority figures like our manager or boss; when we might gain something we want by listening.

This is where my listening path diverts from being a good listener to a not so good one.

I’m a good professional listener, but with my closest people, not always so good.

There have been innumerable times where my husband is sharing with me and I hit the 25% threshold and space out, think of something else, or pick up my phone. On those occasions, my husband will stop and wait.

It’s funny how silence catches your attention.

When I notice the silence and refocus on him, he usually asks where I went.

I’m grateful for his graciousness and I’m also convicted. I’m convicted because he’s my most important person and yet in that moment, he doesn’t feel very important to me.

I, like probably most of you, will be a life-long learner to become a good listener. Here are a few suggestions that I am finding helpful in my pursuit to listen just as attentively to my closest people as to those who come into my office.

1. Remove distractions. For me, I can’t be close to my phone or the TV and be a good listener. If my phone notifies me of anything, I’m on it – that second. 99.9% of the time it can wait, but I don’t wait. I have to put my phone away! I’m also a visual learner, so if there is anything that can distract me, I will be challenged to listen. At restaurants I sit with my back towards people because I am drawn to people watching.

2. Set a time and place to communicate. A listener must be ready to listen. If you have had a busy day and you come home to someone wanting to process their day, you may not be able to listen like you’d want to. What helps me is to set a time to talk. I remember having this experience years ago and I simply told my husband I needed 10 minutes to decompress, and it was the best boundary ever. I laid down on my bed for 10 minutes and re-emerged energized to listen.

3. Keep specific listener and speaker roles. This is super important and where most of us need work in listening. When the speaker is sharing, the conversation needs to be focused on the speaker’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. I wish this was an easy as it sounds, but it is one of the biggest challenges of listening. Instead of listening, we often play the ‘speaker-in-waiting’ role. We are tempted to insert our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. But a good listener is focused solely on what the speaker is thinking and feeling. A good listener tries to understand where the speaker is coming from, even though the listener may not agree with what is being shared. One trick we’ve used at our house to make the speaker role clear is this: the speaker holds a pen. Revolutionary, I know! Whoever has the pen, has the floor.

4. Reflect back what you have heard, ask thoughtful questions, and explore feelings. These are three ways to be an effective listener. To reflect, the listener can say, “So what I’ve heard you say is…” Reflecting back may seem a bit robotic, but it is a great way to let the speaker know he or she have been heard. Asking thoughtful questions helps the speaker explore more deeply their experiences. Questions like: “How do you feel?”, “Have there been other times you’ve felt like that?”, “Would there be anything I can do to help?” Keeping the last question last is important because we don’t want to inhibit sharing by trying to fix. Often we think the speaker wants us to fix the issue, when actually they want us to just listen. Clarifying what is helpful is so important.

5. Remember good boundaries. You are responsible for your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and the speaker is responsible for his/hers. You are responsible to listen and try your best to understand the speaker’s experience and perspective. You are not responsible (or even able) to change how the speaker feels, what he/she does, or how he/she thinks. Clear boundaries are critical for listeners to remember.

We are all a work in progress when it comes to listening. May these steps help you (and me) continue to grow on our journey of listening. Because if Carl Rogers was correct, we could be a part of positive change in the lives of those around us.


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