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Want better relationships? Become a better listener

Have you ever been in conversation with someone and thought, Are they even listening to me? Or perhaps you’ve been told, “You just don’t get it.” In both situations, there is a disconnect — messages aren’t received as intended, and people don’t feel heard. This is a problem because humans have a deep need to feel heard and understood to maintain a sense of security, well-being, and trust in others.

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Helping others feel understood requires good listening. In his book The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, Michael P. Nichols states, “Listening has not one but two purposes: taking in information and bearing witness to another’s experience.” When you listen well, you show others they belong and are worthy of attention, valued, and understood.

Listening to understand cultivates trust and relationships that can withstand interpersonal conflict. When people know they will be heard, they’re more likely to share ideas, concerns, and opinions. When you deeply understand them, you can discover expectations, find points of agreement, and build on potential solutions. This improves team cohesion, creativity, collaboration, and problem resolution.

Here are three key habits that, when used together, will take your listening to a new level.

Connect by empathizing

  • Seek the perspective of the speaker. Set aside your own judgments, needs, biases, feelings, etc. Try to experience the world from the other person’s point of view. This can help you understand what they think or feel and perhaps why.
  • Honor that perspective. Don’t seek holes in their argument or a chance to share your own story. This lets the speaker know they have value as a person and are entitled to their own thoughts and feelings — even if you disagree.

Reflect what you interpret

  • Identify the core idea, feeling or both. As you take the speaker’s perspective, find the heart of what you believe they’re trying to share. This may be a conclusion, emotion, question, or something else. Remember that listening is about bearing witness — what is it that the speaker wants you to bear witness to?
  • Using your own words, state out loud the main message you got. You are testing that what you understood is what was intended. By saying your interpretation — in a curious, tentative tone — you invite the speaker to confirm or correct your understanding.

Ask curious, open-ended questions to discover more about the speaker’s perspective

  • Ask questions that start with “What” or “How.” Curious, open questions invite the speaker to think more deeply and share more fully, so that you both may learn more about their perspective. Avoid questions that force a choice, allow a yes/no answer, or limit the range of responses.
  • Tap into your ignorance. Consider what you don’t yet know about their perspective or how they got it. Examine assumptions you may have made. Ask — with genuine curiosity — about what led to the opinion, emotion, or conclusion they have now.
The three parts of listening to understand: connect, reflect, and ask curious questions.

To build and boost these habits:

  • Pick the habit that seems most natural. For two weeks, pay close attention to how often you’re practicing it and what gets in your way.
  • Find some resources (like the ones linked below) to deepen your knowledge of how to do that habit well. Videos can be particularly helpful.
  • Ask someone to be your learning partner. This person will help you notice when you’re practicing the habit — or not — and can give you feedback.
  • As the first habit becomes stronger, add a second one and repeat the steps above. When you’re ready, add the third habit.
  • Be prepared for people to notice that you’re interacting differently. Let them know you’re learning to listen better.
  • Have grace with yourself as you learn.

When you connect, reflect, and ask to discover, your conversations are likely to be more meaningful. People may share more openly and express trust in you because they feel understood. Conflict may become easier to resolve because you approach it with curiosity and connection, rather than judgment or as competition. You may also find that you are more fully heard when it is your turn to speak.

For more on this topic, check out the following resources:

Eden Teachout is a Strategy and Performance Consultant with the Department of Enterprise Services. An experienced facilitator, instructor, and leadership coach, she strives to help others learn, continuously improve, and perform at their best.

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The Washington State Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free, confidential program created to promote the health, safety and well-being of public service employees. EAP provides counseling and other resources to support employee well-being, address workplace concerns, and help with legal and financial issues. Reach out to EAP online or call 877–313–4455. To find out if the Washington State EAP serves your agency or organization, contact your supervisor or human resources department.

Links to external websites are provided as a convenience. The Employee Assistance Program and the Department of Enterprise Services do not endorse the content, services, or viewpoints found at these external sites. Information is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the counsel or advice of a qualified health or legal professional. For further help, questions, or referral to community resources for specific problems or personal concerns, contact the EAP or other qualified professional.

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We deliver high quality, cost effective support services to state government. DES features expertise in statewide contracting, training, printing & mail operations, human resources and financial systems, facilities management, and care of the state capitol grounds and buildings.

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