becoming a high-quality listener enhances your relationships. here’s how to start

A man and a boy sit talking.

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It’s because we believe in the power of communication to facilitate good relationships that we’ve built illumy for email, IM, and voice calls. illumy isn’t about any one communication method — instead, we’re creating a platform with multiple ways to communicate.

As your conversations flow across formats and devices, keep these tactics in mind to be a good listener and relate more closely. And keep in mind: these tips work for great conversations in person, too.

Listening as a relationship tactic

To become more of a trained listener, therapy offers a compelling model. The science of modern therapy — also known as person-centered therapy — is about listening first and foremost.

Developed by United States psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1940s, person-centered therapy posits that every human is capable of changing themselves for the better.

The therapist’s role in this process is to be empathic and offer a safe space, Rogers believed.

“Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided,” he wrote.

Rogers’ guidance for providing social support offers valuable lessons. In his 1959 essay A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, he offers some elemental advice as to what strong listening skills look like: to adopt a non-judgmental approach, validate what the speaker is saying, and show interest through facial expressions.

A 2021 study on the power of listening effectively says the same thing. High-quality listeners, the researchers write, “convey three qualities to their interlocutor: undivided attention, comprehension, and positive intention.”

Why listening facilitates growth

To understand why these three elements matter so much, consider your own experience of being listened to.

Have you tried to engage someone in conversation only to see them distract themselves by looking at their phone? Have you opened up to someone only to hear them immediately pepper you with solutions or unsolicited advice?

Opening up puts you in a delicate emotional state. The last thing you want at that moment is to feel like the other person isn’t centering what you have to say.

But much of the time, people are more concerned with themselves than the needs of the speaker — e.g., giving advice to feel more influential. (A 2018 study found through a laboratory experiment that advice-giving not only enhances individuals’ sense of power but is more commonly practiced by those who seek power.)

Instead of these kinds of one-sided conversations, the goal should be a constructive conversation in which the person opening up feels genuinely supported.

Constructive conversations have a number of benefits for relationship-building. They generate well-being. They make both parties feel closer to one another. They contribute to a sense of shared effort. And they make the discussion feel productive — that is, offer a foundation for action and personal growth.

How to really listen

Good listening, researcher Guy Itzchakov suggests, is about supporting the speaker’s innate need for 1) autonomy and 2) relatedness.

In other words, when a person is speaking they want two things: to have their points of view engaged with and feel that they had a role in shaping the outcome of the conversation. That’s the diametric opposite of difficult conversations in which one party fails to take the other person’s perspective or offers unsolicited advice.

Here’s 4 tips for your next conversation to start being a better listener.

Provide your full attention.

Giving someone your attention sounds straightforward, but with so many ways to get distracted all the time, it can be tougher than it sounds.

So, aim to limit distractions. Turn over and silence your phone. Pick a setting for your conversation that’s quiet. Offer constant eye contact.

These actions work whether the conversation is in-person or virtual. While the former is better for picking up on body posture and other nonverbal cues, good conversations can take place in digital space, too. The key is having a high-quality communications platform to pick up on more nonverbal behaviors.

One example is the quality of the sound behind voice calls on illumy. Our state-of-the-art tech stack provides hi-res audio on VoIP calls, no matter whether the other person is in the next room over or on the other side of the world.

Practice “backchannel behaviors.”

“Backchannels” are the conversational phrases we insert to signal interest without interrupting the speaker. Also known as response tokens or continuers, they essentially tell the other person that we’re in tune with what they’re saying and want them to go on speaking.

The frequency of backchannels differs by language. They’re very common in Japanese, moderately common in English, and uncommon in Finnish.

And, believe it or not, there are rules for when a backchannel is appropriate. In English, the “right” time for backchannel is 700 milliseconds after a low-pitch utterance lasting 110ms or more.

Don’t worry about counting off the milliseconds. The important thing to keep in mind is that “uh-huhs,” “rights,” and “oks” have an actual role to play: namely, to express the curiosity of the listener and get conversations flowing.

Paraphrase and summarize what you’re hearing.

Paraphrasing is a powerful element of active listening because it signals two things: 1) that we’re really hearing what the other person is saying and 2) we want even more clarity to make sure we understand.

It also turns the conversation into more of a back-and-forth. When you paraphrase, you reframe what you’re hearing as a question. The more you ask a good question as a follow-up, the better you’ll engage the other person.

Summarizing serves the same purpose. By offering a summary, you demonstrate that you understand what’s being said.

Grant a simple path to resolution for the speaker.

If all of the above suggestions provide a sense of relatedness, offering a path forward in the conversation is a way to provide the speaker with greater autonomy.

It sounds counterintuitive, because surely the speaker wants to be fully in charge of shaping the conversation. But if that were really the case, they would simply talk to themselves. We engage in conversation to feel heard by another person.

Maybe the best way to do that is to pose your conversation partner a simple question: “Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?”

This suggestion comes from a New York Times journalist whose sister is an elementary-school teacher. It’s what the teacher and her colleagues ask their students when they seem overwhelmed, but it can work just as well for adults.

The question is simple, but it gives the speaker full control over how the conversation proceeds. And oftentimes, the teacher says, all the person wants is a hug.

Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash.

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