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“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

—Ralph Nichols

Our world is constantly changing on many levels, but one thing remains static: we all seek to be understood. The good news is that it’s easy to help someone feel understood—just listen to them.

Is it really that easy? Well, yes and no. Listening can be complex, and the act of listening has many facets. Often we think we are listening when we are not. But despite these potential challenges, most of us can become good listeners if we take the time to learn this critical skill.

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Try the following six action steps and see if they help you become a better listener.

  1. Take technology out of the picture. When you commit to an in-person conversation, turn off or silence all technology. Sending even one text during a conversation sends the message that you are not listening to the other person and that the text is more important. Is that the message you want to convey? Give those you are in conversation with the attention they deserve.
  2. Be genuinely curious. Remember when you were a child and you kept asking questions just because you wanted to know everything possible about something? You were genuinely curious. You were fascinated by something and wanted to explore it. Try that now as an adult. Be fascinated by whomever you are listening to. Pay attention, explore, and ask questions in response to what the other person is saying. Practice being genuinely curious about someone in your life and see what happens to your relationship. (Hint: Ask questions that are short and that cannot be answered with simply yes or no.)
  3. Be quiet. Let the person answer the question. Silence can be difficult, especially around challenging issues, but resist the temptation to give advice or answer the question yourself. Your silence is a gift to others—it allows them to express emotions that need to be expressed in a safe atmosphere.
  4. Listen with all your senses. Be aware of the effect of the environment on your conversation. Is it too noisy? Is there enough privacy? Are you both sitting comfortably? Listen for verbal and nonverbal cues, including body language and facial expressions. Someone might be telling you how happy she is about something, yet her arms are crossed and she is scowling. Try commenting on her body language; for example, “I notice you are not smiling yet you say you are happy.” See where it takes the conversation. (Hint: Keep your observations and questions short and simple.)
  5. Repeat and summarize. Repeating and summarizing what your conversation companion is telling you is a useful listening tool. By restating what you have heard, you avoid any message confusion. It also allows you, the listener, a bit more time to process the information you just received. Does this technique help you respond more effectively?
  6. Ask questions that are relevant to what is being discussed. For example, if your friend is telling you about her weight and her desire to begin an exercise program, listen to what she is saying and ask her something about exercising. Don’t sway the conversation by talking about the source of her weight gain—stay focused on the flow of the conversation and follow her lead.The first step to being better at anything is awareness. Notice your own patterns as a listener and think about how improving this important skill can affect your relationships: what do you need to change or develop; are there books or other resources on listening that might help you learn more? Then be courageous and try a new way of listening.

Source: Whitworth L, Kimsey-House K, Kimsey-House H, and Sandahl P. Co-active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People toward Success in Work and Life. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black; 1998.

Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM*, is a certified coach and mediator. Her international practice includes clients from every corner of the world and all walks of life—from housewives to senior executives of Fortune 500 companies. She develops and conducts workshops on relationships and emotional intelligence for organizations in the United States and Europe. Denise received her master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and has been a mental health professional for more than 15 years. Her experience includes executive coach, Lee Hecht Harrison; behavioral coach; pre-diabetic adolescent and adult weight management programs; St. Luke’s Medical Center, Ketchum, Idaho; a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic; crisis intervention for New York University; in-patient family therapy at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York City; and substance abuse counseling at Bronx VA Medical Center in New York City. Denise serves on the Board of Directors of the Idaho Mediation Association and is listed on the Idaho Supreme Court roster of custody and visitation mediators. Contact Denise at*