How to Listen (a Little More Powerfully)

Most of us think we are pretty good listeners.  That may be true, but listening is actually an art.  And like every art, it can be refined.  Because of my many years listening to many thousands of people’s life stories, including their opinions, challenges, goals and dreams, I want to share a few of the insights I have gleaned about listening powerfully.

The first insight is this:  People rarely say everything they need to, without being encouraged to say more.  The reasons for this are numerous, but may include underlying anxiety about revealing too much, the mind’s inherent limitations to cohesively and completely share information, along with the worry many have about “going on too long.”

Being a more powerful listener means encouraging the person speaking to share more.  One way to do this is simply to prompt the person to continue.  You can make eye contact and literally say, “Say more . . .”  That will usually lead the other person to dig more deeply into his or her thoughts and feelings and actually present them.

You don’t even have to state your invitation for the other person to open up more.  You can literally make eye contact and gesture with the fingers of your overturned hand, in the way you would motion to someone to come closer.  People will almost universally understand this a request for them to bring out more of their genuine thoughts and emotions.

Another way to encourage the person speaking to share more is to repeat a bit of what he or she just said.  If a person were to say there is “nothing left of the relationship,” you might say, “There is nothing left . . .”  Interestingly enough, this encourages the other person to be more specific and accurate.  And, in so doing, he or she may well be more revealing.  “Well,” the person may end up saying, “I guess it isn’t exactly true that there is nothing left.”  That’s your cue.  You might ask:  “So what remains of value, do you think?”

Another insight about listening more powerfully is:  People don’t always want to go first.  Sometimes, they want to know they are in the company of someone who is a friend of self-disclosure.  And the best way to reassure them of that fact is to do it.  That means, for instance, that if you’re hoping to offer a listening ear to someone who has lost a loved one and is reticent to speak of it, you might get a lot of mileage about sharing your own feelings of loss or your fears about loss.  Translation:  It’s remarkable how much being being vulnerable and human encourages others to do the same.

The third insight about listening powerfully is this:  Confidentiality is key, but you have to mean it.  When you know that you can keep someone’s confidence and that you intend to, say so.  It puts people at ease.  Be direct:  “Whatever you tell me is between us, period, without exception.”

There are other keys to more powerful listening, but the three I’ve mentioned are a great start.  I’ll develop more as part of a Pain-2-Power Action Sheet, which I’ll post soon. (existing Action Sheets are available under the Resources tab on this site).

Dr. Keith Ablow


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