Learning to listen, truly listen, is one of the best skills you can gain to be a better friend, colleague, and family member. And getting there requires unlearning some old habits.
I used to think that listening to someone was as simple as staying quiet while they talked. And frankly, I thought I was pretty good at it—I didn’t interrupt, friends opened up with me easily and I got along well with most people. Then something happened that shook me to the core: I left my long-term partnership, along with the beautiful home and business we had built together, because of conflicts I didn’t know how to handle. Talk about a wakeup call.
Suddenly, I started taking listening very seriously. It was clearly at the heart of healthy communication, which was at the heart of healthy relationships, which for me was at the heart of a healthy, happy life. I was humbled and ready to learn.
If listening wasn’t just about being quiet while others spoke, then what exactly was it about? That question led me on a multi-year journey that involved un-learning most of what I knew and mastering the art of listening—really listening. It required a massive paradigm shift and tons of self-compassion, patience, and practice.
Here are a few lessons learned that have not only saved me a whole lot of stress, pain, and unnecessary conflict but have also added so much depth and connection to my life and relationships.
Listen for what matters to people, rather than what they say. Most of us have learned to express ourselves by sharing thoughts and judgments, but these things are ultimately less important than why we care about what we are sharing. My favorite tool for listening is translating what I hear into feelings and needs — guessing at the true messages underneath people’s words and simply mirroring them back. It’s amazing how this simple shift of focus (from thoughts and judgments to feelings and needs) can support people to drop in and get to the root of what’s going on for them. This also helps me avoid reacting when someone says something painful. Instead of taking their words at face value and judging what they have said, I can interpret their words as a signal about how they feel and what’s important to them, which is much easier to receive. “You’re a bad friend” becomes “I’m vulnerable and hurt because I want more closeness and dependability in our friendship.” “He’s so selfish” becomes “I’m feeling sad, and wanting reassurance and consideration.” “She’s manipulative” becomes “I’m feeling guarded and scared. I really value respect, honesty, and integrity.” For practice, try this card game or this board game with your friends and family.
Listening is about presence and curiosity, not fixing. Without realizing it, many of us have been programmed to respond to others’ discomfort with behaviors like problem-solving, fixing, cheering up, agreeing or disagreeing, etc. “You’re going to be okay.” “Don’t let it get under your skin!” “I’m sure it will work out.” “Here’s what you should do.” “Have you tried this?” While these responses might be useful in some specific contexts, they fall flat when true listening is needed. For these situations, I love the mantra: don’t just do something, stand there. When we’re upset or in pain, we don’t need to be fixed. We just need someone to witness our experience with curiosity and care. Questions like “How did that feel?” or “What was that like for you?” are great substitutes for the kneejerk responses above. I try to remind myself that I can trust others to feel their feelings; all I need to do is keep them company.
Listening is about intention, not accuracy. We aren’t mind-readers, and sometimes the reflections we offer won’t resonate for the people we’re listening to. In these moments, it can feel discouraging and it’s easy to judge ourselves or believe we “did it wrong.” But successful listening is not about perfection or “getting it right” every time! It’s about presence. It’s about showing up and reminding people they matter and they’re not alone. Surprisingly, sometimes the reflections that don’t land turn out to be even more important than the ones that do because they can lead to breakthroughs and new insights. So if my words aren’t resonating with someone, I try not to take it personally. Instead, I get curious— “That’s not it? Tell me more.” I trust that my presence and curiosity are felt and appreciated no matter what.
I’ll be honest, there are still times when I forget to listen (really listen). Perhaps more frequently than I’d like to admit, I find myself reacting, jumping to conclusions, problem-solving or analyzing in moments when it doesn’t serve. When this happens, I try to catch myself, take a breath and try again.
It’s not always easy to listen, especially when people we love are hurting—sometimes it’s quite inconvenient and uncomfortable, in fact! But it’s always worth it. Because if you ask me, human relationships are one of the most precious currencies we have these days. So let’s take care of each other. Let’s slow down and take the time to listen, no matter how imperfect or messy or challenging it may feel. And let’s remind each other over and over that we aren’t here to be fixed, we just need to be heard.
Communication & Leadership Coach
She helps people overcome patterns of reactivity, judgment and blame to live with more authenticity, courage and kindness. Erin is a Certified Trainer in Nonviolent Communication with a degree in Sociology. Her coaching, business consulting, facilitation and public speaking blends powerful expertise with human intuition to create a more openhearted way of working, relating and living. Born and raised in Seattle, Erin is passionate about hiking and backpacking, world travel, speaking Spanish, singing and playing the ukulele, vegetarian cooking, yoga and devouring self-help books. Learn more at www.erinmerrihew.com.