What makes someone a good listener? How do you know you’ve encountered one? You may have experienced the company of a good listener when you have stepped out of a conversation feeling enlightened and refreshed. You also may have felt that your open and honest conversation was respected and that your time was valued. We don’t often find ourselves in conversations like these. It seems as though these types of individuals are hard to come by. One of the largest communication problems in our society is that we do not listen to understand. We hear the audible noise coming from someone’s mouth and then eagerly reply as soon as they are finished talking. Our society values opportunities to speak rather than humbled listening. We also interrupt, name call, and selectively take information out of context and use it in a way to destroy someone’s character. Though, we should not be too surprised that listening is not of the same value as speaking. How many of us can say we were taught how to listen empathically and with our full attention when no one has really listened to us growing up? How many great works of literature exist on listening? Who has ever left a mark on history being the world's best listener?
Despite our lack of value for listening, good listeners do exist. There are several defining traits of good listeners if you have ever been in a conversation with one. Firstly, a good listener is someone that encourages us to provide details. They ask us to elaborate and explain during our turn in the conversation. We’re encouraged to get down to specific details to establish a concrete and vivid story for them. Through subtle gestures like “please, go on” or “mhmm, right” they let us know that they are interested in what we have to say and want us to express our stories with full details rather than empty general statements.
Secondly, a good listener desires comprehension. They will ask why we may hold the particular beliefs we do and why we may feel strongly about them. They explore our sentiments and will ask us to clarify them through additional context and reasoning. Through that process, they help us understand why we feel the way we do. The good listener gives us an opportunity to articulate our beliefs rather than have them float in our heads without any real consideration. By asking us clarifying questions and seeking out why we think the way we do, the good listener encourages us to explore our own sentiments and beliefs through an honest conversation.
Thirdly, a good listener aims to understand the person. A good listener has a firm understanding that life comes with unique people each with their unique experience. A good listener aims to form a complete, yet an honest concept of the person with whom they are having a conversation. In our competitive world, it is particularly difficult to admit to feeling exhausted, burnt out, inadequate, or to admit to any of our personal failures. The good listener assures us that they do not see us in these terms and that they value our vulnerability rather than being shocked by it. They do not wish to see us as anything other than our honest selves.
Lastly, a good listener is able to disagree with us without hostility. The good listener believes it is in the best interest of the other individual to be aware they have erred in their reasoning. These comments are not made out of any harsh resentment or bad will. The good listener wishes for the other to be correctly informed. They also welcome this kind of feedback in return. Because like everyone else, the good listener is also wrong some of the time.
Given all these details, how do we then teach people to listen mindfully? To absorb information and provide undivided attention? To encourage someone to speak and to listen to them without any arbitrary criteria? By doing it ourselves. When we engage in a conversation with a good listener we feel a sense of pleasure. It also is mutually pleasing for them. We exchange stories, ideas, concerns, beliefs, and interests with someone who has a genuine desire to want to know more about us. The good listener is often quiet. But when given the chance to speak, they encourage us to elaborate and clarify, and it is never to criticize or moralize us. They have an interest in human lives and make listening to stories a hobby. With that they teach us an important lesson: sometimes it is better to open our ears rather than our mouths.