Listening is one of the simplest and yet most difficult things to do well and consistently. We often hear or use the phrase “listening is key,” but most of the time we regard the act of listening as an essential part of the communication process, as a simple courtesy, or possibly as a means to getting what we want. But how often do we really consider that the art and practice of listening may have actual and long-lasting mental benefits for us? Not nearly enough, in my opinion. So I asked Dr. Dale Archer, an M.D. and a clinical psychiatrist, for his take on the connection between learning to listen well and better emotional health – and got him to give us eight tips on how to make that important connection last:
How is being a good listener beneficial to our state of mental health?
Good question. In today’s narcissistic world, what’s in it for me if I’m a good listener? Well, there are numerous studies that show that relationships are good for your mental health. Those in relationships – with a lot of friends and good connectivity with extended family – not only rank markedly higher on so-called “happiness scales,” but also live much longer than those who don’t. And when we look at the number-one predictor for healthy relationships, it’s communication. And the number-one predictor of good communication between people? You guessed it: The ability to listen. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that by learning to listen, you expand your friends, have healthier relationships, are happier, and will live longer to boot. Not a bad payoff for such a simple life skill.
Sold. So how can we become better listeners?
One of the skills that’s gradually being lost in our email/texting/Facebook culture is the ability to communicate face-to-face. And the biggest obstacle preventing us from being proficient at in-person communication remains our ability to listen. Here are eight ways to become a better listener that every good therapist knows:
- Get comfortable: Try to have important conversations in a quiet, comfortable setting, free from distractions.
- Focus, focus, focus on the other person and what they’re saying. Don’t be thinking about tomorrow’s schedule, errands you have to run, or that presentation at work. Give your undivided attention to the speaker.
- Stop talking! Let the other person speak. If there’s a pause, don’t immediately speak to fill it. Folks feel uncomfortable with silence and will often jump in and say something instinctively. This can be a very important and telling – and unhealthy.
- Eye contact: Don’t take your eyes off theirs when they’re speaking. The other person will feel that you care more and so will share more.
- Body language: Up to 80% of communication is nonverbal. Pay attention to posture, facial expressions, emotions, pauses, and tone of voice. You don’t need to be an expert to get a feel for the other person’s emotional state, which may be different than what they’re saying.
- Give affirmations: This shows that you’re listening and sympathetic and the other person will share more. For example: “So, your husband actually defended his co-worker instead of you?”
- Ask open-ended questions such as, “How did you feel about that?” or “Why do you think he did that?” These allow them to clarify what they’re thinking and feeling, and again, indicates that you’re really listening.
- What do they really want? Do they want your sympathy, advice, just to vent, or are they angry with you? The message may be different than the words. Do your best to identify it.
So the next time you need to have a face-to-face, give these eight tips a try and see if the entire experience isn’t richer, more satisfying, and more fun than trying to communicate in 140 characters or less or in a Facebook thread. Warning: The downside is that if you practice these skills frequently, soon you may become the go-to person whenever anyone has a problem or needs advice because you just seem to “get it.”
Dr. Dale Archer is a medical doctor, board-certified psychiatrist, and Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association who has helped thousands of patients for more than two decades. His focus is to give good common sense psychological advice. Specialties include chemical imbalances of the brain, relationships, and personal responsibility.