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4 Secrets Therapists Use to Be a Great Listener

Have you been told that you're a great listener, or is this a skill you'd like to work on? These four therapists' pro tips will help you be a good listener and a better friend.

By
Jade Wu,
Episode #257
good listener

Do you know how to be a good listener? It's not only a skill we all need, but one we all crave.

Let’s say you’ve had a tough day, or tough month. You didn’t get that promotion you were promised, and you found out that your more junior coworker makes a higher salary than you. Your AC is out and it’s hot as a sauna. Your separated parents are fighting over who gets you for the holidays. And your favorite khaleesi just dracarys’d a million civilians for no reason at all. (No, I’m still not over it.)

What do you need in this moment? If you’re like me, an iced tea and a friend’s listening ear might be at the top of your list. Which friend would you go to? I’m guessing you’d want someone who's a good listener. But what makes a good listener, exactly? And do you think you’ve got those qualities?

Why listening is a necessary skill

A friend was recently venting to me about her relationship. She’s dating this awesome guy. He's kind, smart, funny, handsome, and her dog loves him … so, pretty much perfect! She really likes him. The only complaint she had was that he’s just not a great listener. Don’t get me wrong, she said—they had great chemistry, talking about everything from travel to music, but if she needed to vent about work frustrations or get some emotional support about family drama, he suddenly clammed up. Not that he would leave the room or do anything rude. Apparently, he was very attentive, willing to sit down for as long as she wanted to talk, and was never impatient or mean. He kept his ears open, maintained good eye contact, and nodded frequently.

So, what was wrong? It sounds like he did a lot of, well ... listening.

The problem, my friend said, was that she felt like she was talking to a wall. A very nice wall, but frustratingly unresponsive. She didn’t get any feedback to indicate that he really understood or empathized with her, that he was thoughtful about what he'd heard, or that he even cared. In other words, she didn’t feel heard.

When she felt this way about her boyfriend, she would sometimes try to talk to her sister about it. The good news is that her sister is certainly responsive. She was very active in giving advice. The downside is that that’s all she did—give advice! Sometimes my friend found this helpful, but sometimes this was just as frustrating as talking to her boyfriend, because the advice was often not on-point or felt judgmental. Most of all, my friend still didn’t get the emotional support she needed. So, in a way, her sister was acting like a wall, too. Perhaps a more interactive one, but just as impenetrable and unhelpful.

So what to do? Being silent doesn’t work. But giving too much advice is counterproductive too. Is there a balance, or another option?

The answer is yes!

I’ll let you in on a therapist's insider. The very first thing we learn in our clinical training is how to be a good listener, and it continues to be one of the most important skills we cultivate throughout our careers. Why? Because listening is the secret sauce for improving patient outcomes, no matter which disorders we treat or what type of therapy we practice.

The very first thing we learn in our clinical training is how to be a good listener, and it continues to be one of the most important skills we cultivate throughout our careers.

We’ve known for decades that patients’ improvement depends as much on actively showing empathy and being collaborative as on using specific therapeutic techniques. In fact, it’s possible that these soft skills matter even more. One classic study on cognitive therapy for depression found that a better quality therapist-patient relationship leads to greater patient improvement. What’s even more interesting—sometimes, instead of cultivating the alliance with the patient, the therapist would concentrate too much on correcting the patient’s logical errors and giving advice on how to think differently. Instead of helping patients to see things more clearly, this actually made the patient’s outcomes worse.

What does that mean for you as an everyday listener? The good news is that you if master the skills of being a good listener, you would be halfway to being a professional therapist. The catch is that listening is pretty tricky, even for professionals. You have to be active in the conversation, but careful in how you’re doing so.

How to be a good listener

Here are 4 therapist secrets to help you hone this important skill:

Tip #1 - Reflect back what you hear

This is Lesson Number One in therapist training. It’s a simple tip, but it works like magic. Basically, if you are the listener, your first response should always be to repeat back to the speaker what they said.

Really? Literally repeat their words?

Yes. I know it sounds like this would be robotic, artificial, and even annoying. But give it a try! I bet whoever you're listening to won’t even notice you’re doing it. Try doing it with an understanding nod. Paraphrase a little bit, perhaps. Start with, “It sounds like…”

For example, if your friend says, “My roommate is the worst! His dishes have been in the sink for three days straight!” You can reply, “Yikes, it sounds like your roommate’s dishes have been piling up.” Or even, “Wow, his dishes have been there for three days?”

The goal is not to be a parrot but to demonstrate that you are listening, you care, and you understand. In more complex situations, this also ensures that the two of you are on the same page. Often, conversations go awry because one person is misunderstanding the other’s meaning, and reflections give everybody a chance to catch assumptions before they multiply into full arguments.

The goal is not to be a parrot but to demonstrate that you are listening, you care, and you understand.

I think this is what my friend’s boyfriend, The Wall, needed to do. Instead of making her wonder, “Did he even hear me? If so, does he get it? Does he agree, or have a better idea? Does he care?”, he could have conveyed all of this just by simply saying, “Hmm, so—insert blank—happened today, and it sounds like that was pretty frustrating.”

Tip #2 - Ask questions instead of providing answers

If someone is coming to you with a problem, chances are good they want to vent. They probably need to tell you stuff more than they need your problem-solving skills. In part, this is because they’ve already gone through some problem-solving ideas already.

One of my favorite stand-up comedians, Tommy Johnagain, told a story on stage about how his ex-fiancée got engaged to someone else six weeks after breaking up with him. And his friend’s response was, “You know, she was probably cheating on you.” In retrospect, he and his audience can laugh about this—“Really, Sherlock, you think I hadn’t considered this?” (His delivery was better than mine.!) At the time, however, was this friend helpful? Obviously not.

If someone is coming to you with a problem, chances are good they want to vent. They probably need to tell you stuff more than they need your problem-solving skills.

People also don’t want you to problem-solve right away because, at the height of their emotional experience, they need empathy more urgently than anything else. In this moment, it’s about them, not you.

So, when someone first comes to you with a problem, it's not a good time to demonstrate your deductive reasoning skills. Give your friend the attention they need by asking some questions, which shows that you care. What if Tommy's friend had asked “Wow, who was the new guy? How did you find out? How do you feel?” Instead of shutting down the conversation, this would have allowed his friend to learn more and eventually get a better handle on how to help.

Tip #3 - Validate feelings, even if you don’t agree with the logic

To validate means to tell someone that what they feel is legitimate, not “crazy.”

One common protest I hear is, “But what if they’re wrong? I can’t just blindly agree with them!” Of course. You shouldn’t blindly agree with whatever your distressed friend believes. They could be wrong. But you can always validate feelings without agreeing with your friend's logic.

For example, if your friend tells you “I’m so mad because everyone at work is out to get me,” you might be tempted to say “Come on, what are the chances that everyone there is out to get you? You’re just being paranoid.” Your comment might've been intended to be reassuring, but what you’ve really done is dismissed your friend’s feelings. Whether or not he’s right about his coworkers, his frustration is real. After all, if you truly believed that your coworkers were ganging up on you, wouldn’t you be mad?

You shouldn’t blindly agree with whatever your distressed friend believes. They could be wrong. But you can always validate feelings without agreeing with your friend's logic.

What you can do here is validate the feeling first—“That sucks! I’d be mad too.” This tells your friend that you understand how he feels. At some point later, you might ask some clarifying questions and help your friend to arrive at a more balanced position. But you’ll never get the chance to do that if you don’t build this foundation of validation first. 

Tip #4 - Refrain from giving unsolicited advice

This one is very hard to do. After years of providing therapy, I still find myself constantly fighting the urge to give advice and offer solutions. And that’s in a context where people are paying specifically for my advice!

Don’t worry, I don’t forever withhold advice from clients, but I do know that I need to pace myself. I only offer advice when my clients are ready to hear it.

In daily life, this applies too. Again, when someone approaches you with a difficult situation, they need empathy first and foremost. If not, they will explicitly ask for advice by saying something like “tell me what to do.” Those are the magic words for you to go ahead and expound.

When someone explicitly asks for advice by saying something like “tell me what to do,” those are the magic words for you to go ahead and expound.

If you don’t hear those words, keep repeating the steps in tips 1, 2, and 3 until you do. Those steps build understanding and trust, and that's necessary groundwork if you want the advice you'll eventually give to stick.

Think about this—if you felt that someone was misunderstanding you, dismissing you, judging you, making assumptions, or more interested in the sound of their own voice than hearing you, would you take their advice? Probably not. So, if you really have helpful advice to give, invest in actively listening before giving it.

Listening is an important life skill

Okay, let's recap. Good listening goes a long way. It is the number one skill therapists cultivate. Being good at it delivers a measurable benefit to the person you’re listening to.

The therapist’s listening playbook includes these four essentials: Reflect back what you hear; ask questions instead of offering answers; validate feelings, even if you disagree with the logic; and don’t give advice until you’re explicitly invited to do so.

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If you try this with your friends and family, let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you on Facebook or Twitter. You can also visit me at jadewuphd.com for more articles and resources. Don’t forget to tune in next week for a topic I’m super excited about: ASMR. Whether you’re an ASMR connoisseur, or just hearing about it for the first time, this will be a fun exploration of the science of ASMR and some tips for trying it out. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe to the Savvy Psychologist newsletter to get tips delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Disclaimer

Savvy Psychologist is strictly for informational purposes and doesn’t substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.

About the Author

Jade Wu

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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