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How to become a better listener

Sometimes, really listening can be more important than saying the "right" thing. If you’re trying to support a friend in need, honing your listening skills is essential.


Two men sitting on the steps of an old building and chatting with a coffee

What makes a good listener? From active listening to body language and empathy statements, follow these tips to learn how to develop your listening skills and better understand others.


Create the right environment


Part of being a good listener isn’t strictly about listening. When someone comes to you with a problem they’d like to share, the first step is to give them the time and space they need.


Create a positive environment for your conversation. You need a quiet, comfortable space where you won’t get interrupted or be overheard. Put away your phone, too. There’s nothing more distracting than social media notifications popping up on your screen every two minutes.


Time is of the essence. Make sure you have enough time to give them your full attention. Let them know how much time you have and make more for them if you can. If you’re in the middle of something, it’s ok to ask them to hold that thought until you’re in a position to really listen.


If you’re pressed for time, though, be honest about it. It’s always better to communicate about your availability so the other person doesn’t feel rushed or dismissed.


Try the OARS model


The OARS model uses empathy techniques to facilitate interactions and develop listening skills. Based on four pillars, it will help you better understand and support others.


In psychology, OARS stands for:

  • Open questions

  • Affirmation

  • Reflective listening

  • Summarizing


Open questions

As opposed to closed-ended questions, open questions are queries you wouldn’t answer with “yes” or “no”. They give people an opportunity to open up and direct the conversation as they wish.


For example, “how are you feeling?” might trigger a more developed response than “are you ok?”, which someone might dismiss with a one-word answer. To show you’re actively listening, try to ask open-ended questions such as “what was that like for you?” or “why do you think you feel this way?”


You should see open questions as a way to encourage someone to keep talking. If their story flows naturally after the first question, no need to interrupt and bombard them with more. Get a sense of when they need a little “push”. Whether it’s a “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, or a “how” question should come naturally if you’ve been paying attention.


These questions will help you better understand the issue. On the other side, they’ll help the other person explore and work through their thoughts and feelings.


Affirmations

Affirmations are great active listening tools to show you care and to make people feel heard and supported. It helps build a connection with them by validating their experience. These empathy statements can also boost the person’s self-esteem and encourage them to expand.


Here are some examples of empathy statements and affirmations to show you’re actively listening and empathizing with them.

  • “It sounds like you are trying really hard to …”

  • “It’s very brave of you to share. Thank you.”

  • “Thanks for sharing, it mustn't have been easy”

  • “That must be exhausting for you”

  • “It's absolutely ok to feel this way”


Man drinking a takeaway coffee and looking at a woman talking to him


Reflective listening

Reflective listening is a way to ensure you really understand what the other person is saying. It simply means using your own words to rephrase what they have just told you to show them you’ve been listening attentively. This technique will help you create a genuine bond and make them feel heard.


For example, if they’ve been talking about being overworked, you could say “‘It sounds like you’re really struggling with your workload at the moment and feeling that it’s all getting on top of you, is that right?”


Reflective listening allows them to hear how they’re feeling from a different point of view which can help with their healing journey.



Summarizing

When someone is going through a rough time, it can be difficult to express themselves in a clear, concise way. Helping them summarize their thoughts and feelings can be very useful to provide some structure to their thought process.


It can help them make more sense of it all and ensure that, on your side, you’ve been able to follow and understand them fully. By offering a summary of what you understood from the conversation, you’re checking you’re still on the same page. It also gives them an opportunity to go back on what they said in case you misunderstood some of it.


For example, you can say “I’d like to summarize what I’ve heard from you if that’s ok.” Hearing someone calmly summarize what’s going on can be very soothing and make things feel less insurmountable. It’s also a great way to test your listening skills!


Shut down your internal dialogue


Good listeners don’t prepare their answers while the other person is talking. They give their full attention to the person speaking. If your friend, sibling, colleague, or even client is going through something difficult, it’s important not to let your ego get the best of you. It’s ok not knowing what to say!


Chances are they’re talking to you because they have a lot on their mind. Don’t let your eagerness to be helpful affect your ability to actually support them. Trust the OARS model when it comes to questions and affirmations. You don’t need to cook up some deeply insightful and never-heard-before comment that will change their entire mind. They just need someone to be there and listen.</