How To Be A Supportive Listener - Lisa E Betz

    In my last post I offered suggestions for how to be a better friend. One of the things I mentioned was the importance of being a compassionate, supportive listener.

    Good communication is vital for a healthy relationship. Yet how often do we make do with a brief text message or a quick exchange as we rush by on our way to accomplishing our next task? If we want to enjoy the fruits of a healthy, mutually enriching friendship, we must nurture our relationships.

    One important way to strengthen friendships and support your loved ones is to be a supportive listener. Unfortunately, most of us have developed unhealthy listening habits, such as being easily distracted, defensive, critical, or impatient.

    This means we all have work to do. We need to become better, more patient and supportive listeners. This post shows us how.

    Basic listening etiquette

    • Give your undivided attention. Don’t multitask. Set your devices aside and avoid other distractions. Focus fully on what they are saying. If you struggle to keep your mind from wandering, try mentally repeating your friend’s words to yourself as she speaks.
    • Be aware of nonverbal signals. Your facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and eye contact should communicate that you want to be there, and you care about her and what she is saying. You may need to consciously adjust your body language to send the right signals.
    • Don’t interrupt. Let her finish her thought before asking questions. Let him talk at his own pace. Don’t finish people’s sentences for them. (Confession: I am guilty of this, but I’m trying to do better. It’s rude and it implies I can read their minds.)  

    A supportive listener creates an atmosphere of emotional safety

    “Emotionally safe people are comfortable with listening and seeking to understand before imparting their wisdom. They can sit with you in silence. They offer opinions without needing to be right. They offer advice without putting strings on whether you follow it.”

    Dr. Alison Cook

    Creating an emotionally safe environment is a skill we must practice. It doesn’t come naturally to us. Here are five aspects of building an emotionally safe listening environment.

    • Start from a place of trust, where each friend has the best interests of the other at heart. Prove you care by listening respectfully and guarding your friend’s privacy and feelings.
    • Set an intention to be curious and open. Avoid criticism, invalidating remarks, belittling, and finding blame.
    • Honor all attempts to discuss difficult things. Be vulnerable yourself. This shows you trust your friend. Respect your friend’s attempts at vulnerability by keeping personal information confidential, and by respecting their boundaries.
    • Don’t question their feelings. Accept the feelings they express without criticizing or indicating they are wrong to feel that way. A wise friend can hear about someone’s feelings without taking responsibility for them or judging whether they are “right” or “wrong.”
    • Affirm you care by allowing as much time as is needed to work through an issue (or a misunderstanding) until both of you feel comfortable.

    A good listener is patient

    When a friend needs a listening ear, they usually need ample time to talk their way into what is really bothering them. This means being patient with the process and letting it take as long as necessary.

    This also means refraining from pushing them to get to the point. Many of us struggle to put our feelings into words. Expecting us to tell you how we feel without giving us time to figure it out won’t help our relationship.  

    In addition, people often want to talk at inconvenient times (like when we are getting ready for bed or while we are grocery shopping). We prove how much we care when we set aside our plans or rearrange our schedule to give them our attention. Obviously, we can’t always drop what we’re doing, but as much as possible, we should try to be available when a friend needs to talk.

    A supportive listener acts as a sounding board, not an advisor

    A supportive listener acts as a sounding board, not an advisor

    Most of us default to giving quick advice aimed at fixing the unpleasantness as soon as possible so we can move on. We tend to jump in with solutions and advice, but often what a friend needs most is someone to listen as they work through their thoughts and emotions and come to their own conclusions.

    Therefore, a good listener should listen without trying to fix, save, advise, or set straight.

    • Fixing is looking for the quick fix that will ease the symptoms without digging to find the root cause.
    • Saving is rescuing others from the problem instead of helping them learn and grow through the challenge.
    • Advising assumes we know what is best for them and their situation. But we never know the whole story of someone else’s life, therefore despite our best intentions, we don’t know what’s best.   
    • Setting straight implies there is one correct way to view an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision—and that you know that one right way.  

    Listening involves asking helpful questions

    Ask open-ended questions that help your friend process his thoughts. Also, ask questions to clarify your understanding. Here are some examples of each:

    • What bothers you most about this issue?
    • What frustrates you most about this?
    • How did you feel when that happened?
    • What happened to make you feel that way?
    • What are the pros and cons of making that decision?
    • Can you tell me what you’re afraid might happen?
    • What do you think the next step might be?
    • What if the opposite were true?
    • Let me see if I understand. You’re feeling ___ because ___. Is that right?
    • What I’m hearing you say is ___. Is that what you meant?
    • Did I hear you correctly when you said ___?

    How will you be a better listener?

    Being a supportive listener is one of the most important roles one friend can offer another. It’s a skill we can all improve with practice. This post challenges me and I’m sure it challenges you, too.

    Will you set an intention to grow more skilled in this area? You can begin to practice active, compassionate listening every day, as you interact with family, coworkers and friends.

    I hope you’ll take small steps to be a better listener this week.


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