How to improve your listening skills

Good listening skills are useful in all aspects of our life and yet we don't always get taught how to be a good listener. Communicating can be challenging when listening is not put into practice.


Trial and error and practice can make you a better listener. I've learnt some great listening skills throughout my career and life and I'm delighted to share them with you in this artice

I guess it started when I was a child. As much as I loved my mum and dad to bits, communicating with them was a huge challenge. Do you remember some of these phrases?:

  • "Because I told you so."
  • "Don't answer back."
  • "Go to your room, now!"
  • "Wait till your father gets home."
  • "Children should be seen and not heard."
  • "I don't care about what you have to say."

These phrases can condition a person to repeat them in later life and to find it very difficult to communicate with other people. We can become triggered by the words people use and when people do not listen and this can lead to anger and anxiety. 

How to listen

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. When you truly listen you need to really be quiet and not say a word. You won't be listening if you keep piping in with, "Oh yes, that happened to me that time when I...." or "Well you know what you should do about that now?" - it can be unhelpful.

Looking down at your phone won't communicate you are listening either, nor will any other distractions. If someone has something important they need to talk to you about then please turn off your phone - completely and go somewhere quiet. This act will show support and empathy. Don't fit the talk in around a busy schedule. Make it clear how much time you have or rearrange for when you have more time. Cutting short a difficult situation is mean. An example of this would be talking to your poorly relative while driving and then getting cut off in a tunnel. This is a no, no.

Asking the question "What's the matter?" - can you see anything tricky about this? It's a little vague, isn't it? Ask yourself if you can be a bit more specific? "Tell me what it is that is bothering you at the moment?" - this is more open. Also, it implies that the issue is temporary and can be overcome.

Unless you are specifically looking for a yes/no answer then open-ended questions will get much more information.

Examples of closed questions begin with;

  • Do you?
  • Are you?
  • Have You?
  • Will you?

Example of open-ended questions are;

  • "...and then what happened?" This question expands the conversation beautifully and you can say it a few times. You can learn masses when you ask this.
  • "When do you not feel like this?"
  • "How can this situation be made better?"
  • "What do you see yourself doing in two years from now?
  • "What will your life look like when you finally leave that horrible job?"
  • "What type of job are you looking for now?"
  • "How did you and your partner meet?'
  • "Give me two or three examples of when you felt confident in this role?"

Body language

These are counselling tricks of the trade and you can use them in any situation, at work or in your personal life.

Mirror the other person

Don't make it so obvious that it is noticed. If the other person is sitting crossed-legged, you do the same. If they are speaking loudly you can too unless you are trying to deliberately bring the volume down and then you can gradually speak more quietly. This works when the conversation is tense.

If the other person is sitting forward, copy this and as they change you can too, but not like the young French boy sitting on the bench in Mr Bean's 'Holiday'! Subtlety is the key.

Make eye contact

Make eye contact with the other person but don't stare and if the other person is more introvert in nature then definitely don't stare as this will make them feel very uncomfortable.

Show you are listening

As the person speaks nod your head from time to time. This shows them that you are listening. You can say "yes, I see or uh ha, really? or "wow".

Active listening/paraphrasing

Sometimes the other person might be rambling a bit which makes it difficult for you to take everything in. You can interrupt politely by saying, "Can I just get this right? Or, "Just so that I understand what you're saying..." Then you can paraphrase what the person has said (not parrot-fashion, do this in your own words). This is active listening and it really shows the other person that you understand what they are trying to say. You can add, "Have I got that right?" Or, "Is this what you mean?"

Open-ended questions

Asking for examples and using open-ended questions get the conversation moving along. Imagine if you were on a date. A great way to make sure your companion really wants to see you again is to tell very little about yourself and use all the above techniques to learn everything about them. That person will feel listened to, cared about and have high self-esteem. A win, win situation. This applies to a difficult chat with a relative, an interview or meeting an old acquaintance in the street.

Embrace silence

Many people find silences awkward. This is definitely worth some practice. Try not to jump in when all goes quiet for a bit. Some people need more time to process what has been said. It can be very confusing when too many instructions or topics are shared in close succession.

Slow down

Slow right down. Listen. You don't want to miss the crux of the matter. When there is a pause, let it settle. Wait. Maybe look around a bit. Breathe. A few extra seconds can make all the difference. On a good few occasions, the 'thing' has come right out of that silent moment.

When someone has listened to our stories, really listened, generally, we feel lighter, happier and very cared for. 

If you fancy having a chat and feeling really listened to, talking to a counsellor or therapist might be what you need. A professional counsellor is trained in listening and can give you that space to be really heard. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Frome BA11 & Reigate RH2
Written by Sally Nilsson, HG.Dip.P,, Hyp. Cert. CS. MNCS (Accred) Psychotherapist
Frome BA11 & Reigate RH2

I am a human givens therapist, counsellor and hypnotherapist. I'm committed to breaking taboos on mental health in our communities and promoting good mental health. During coronavirus, I have written a number of articles to help with improving mental health and offer online counselling using Zoom, Skype or Whatsapp.

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