How to be a good listener: 7 tips for better communication

We’ve all been taught to lead the conversation, but listening is the more powerful position, author says.
The characters played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott listen to each other in the hit series "Fleabag."
The characters played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott listen to each other in the hit series "Fleabag."Amazon

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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Behold the power of a good listener.

When “Fleabag” star Phoebe Waller-Bridge recently tried to explain the obsession over the show’s break-out character — “Hot Priest,” played by actor Andrew Scott — she credited one basic human skill.

“Andrew and I were trying to figure out what it was about him that was driving women so mental. And we boiled it down and realized it was because he was doing this one thing: listening. Really, really listening. Try it, guys,” Waller-Bridge said when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” last fall.

The line got a big laugh, but it’s no joke.

Neuroscience shows that when a speaker and a listener are feeling a connection, their brain waves are actually in sync, said Kate Murphy, author of the new book, “You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters.” A psychologist told her it’s like experiencing “snatches of magic.”

The journalist started researching the art of listening after noticing that people she interviewed seemed surprised she was actually paying attention.

“As a result, people often told me these incredibly personal things, as if they’d been waiting a long time for a listener to tell,” Murphy told TODAY.

“The thing that was so touching is afterwards they would always say — and these are very accomplished people with vast networks of colleagues and family — ‘Oh, thank you so much for listening’ and ‘I can’t believe I told you that.’ And also, ‘I’m so sorry’ — as if they had done something wrong, as if they had taken so much from me, as if listening was too much to ask.”

Murphy was also struck that many people reported feeling lonely in the presence of others. Anyone who has ever been surrounded by people staring at their phones can relate.

So how can you harness the power of a good listener? Murphy offered these tips to sharpen anyone’s listening skills and shine in social situations:

1. Realize listening is the more powerful position

Listening is how you learn about and connect with someone. Once you understand that listening can be more valuable than speaking, you’ll be more in the moment, Murphy said.

“People are so worried about what they’re going to say and as a result, they miss a lot of what the other person is saying,” she noted. “If you haven’t been listening well, you’re not going to respond in a way that really resonates with the other person.”

2. Remember that you already know about you

The goal in every conversation is to find out more about the other person. Resist shifting the chat back to yourself and instead encourage the other person to elaborate. When you leave, Murphy advised asking yourself: What did I learn about that person? How did that person feel about what we were talking about?

It’s fine to share some of your experiences, but beware of making it all about yourself.

3. Keep an open and curious mind

Think of yourself as a detective in the conversation. Everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions, Murphy said. If you notice someone wearing an interesting piece of jewelry, ask where it came from, for example.

If you show you’re genuinely interested, the other person is going to open up.

4. Ask expansive questions

Avoid typical inquiries like: What do you do for a living? Where do you live? Where did you go to school? They reduce the conversation to a rehearsed resume recitation or elevator pitch.

“Those are all questions that are essentially not you being curious and wanting to find something out about the other person, so much as rank them in the social hierarchy,” Murphy said.

“That’s the kind of conversation that always makes me think, ‘I want to get home to my dog. This is so painful.’"

Instead, she suggested asking expansive questions like, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?” or “Do you have any good restaurant recommendations?”

Let the other person respond. If you follow this format, you won’t have to ask another question for a while because the conversation will flow naturally.

5. But don’t pepper people with questions

You don’t want to be an interrogator — it never works, Murphy said. A CIA agent told her the way to get people to open up was to establish a relationship and then invite them to tell their story.

Part of being a good listener is reading the other person: Is she looking uncomfortable? Is there a bit of a pained look or crinkling between the eyes?

“You listen for the rhythm and it’s almost like you’re both dancers,” Murphy said. “You’re no longer in your head, you’re really into their story and you’re moving along with each other.”

6. Come back from 'mental side trips'

Our brains can think much faster than someone can talk, so it’s very common to start thinking about other things — work worries, errands, vacation plans — during a conversation.

Murphy advised acknowledging those distractions, then returning to focus. It’s just like meditation, but instead of focusing on your breath or a mantra, you gently return your focus to the speaker. It gets better with practice.

7. Let worry and anxiety fall away

All of us want to be accepted, so people may be distracted by thoughts like: Does this person like me? How is this going? What am I going to say next? How can I impress this person?

“I find that really dissolves once you get involved in somebody else’s story. It’s almost like watching a movie. People are so interesting if you give them a chance,” Murphy said.

“That worrying about being liked — just keep in mind, the other person has that same anxiety. Really try and connect with them by listening, which gets rid of that anxiety because once you connect, they’re going to like you.”