Listening is a highly underrated social skill, but one that is an important part of any relationship. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or colleague, everyone needs to unburden themselves to a sympathetic listener occasionally. When you listen to a friend, you may be helping them think through a problem, or bounce ideas off you, or just plain vent. But do you know how to be a good listener? Here are six tips that will help you become a better listener for your friends and help them through a rough patch.
When a friend needs a shoulder to lean on, it’s time to mute your cell phone, switch off the TV, and give the matter your full attention. Remove all distractions from your immediate physical presence. This is a way of telling your friend that you consider their problem important enough to give it your undivided attention. Find a place where you can talk comfortably. Keep in mind that everyone’s idea of a good place for a conversation is different. Some prefer solitude, while others may feel more at home in a busy urban environment.
Our body language gives off subtle hints about our state of mind. If you’re not paying attention to what’s being said, it will show. Making eye contact and nodding from time to time indicates to your friend that you are following and minding what they’re saying. Keeping your arms and feet uncrossed likewise, signals your openness to your friend’s words.
3. Ask questions
Unlike your usual conversations, this isn’t a two-way exchange. Let your friend do most of the talking, but do ask questions that show you are interested in order to convey that you are following and thinking about their words. Asking questions also helps to keep the focus where it belongs: on your friend. A listening session is not the same as a conversation, and if you keep the difference in mind, you’ll be a better listener.
4. Let them know you’re there for them
If you notice that a friend who has been going through a rough patch has withdrawn from social activities, let them know you’re there for them. Don’t push them to talk but do call or visit occasionally, or make plans for an outing which will provide a distraction as well as an opportunity to talk. Ask your friend to join you for a cup of coffee or a walk in the park.
What you want to do is create conditions in which your friend feels comfortable enough to open up, and talk about whatever is on their mind.
5. Don’t judge
Once your efforts are successful and your friend starts talking, remember to not act judgmental. They may just want to vent about work or a new neighbor; and your job is to provide a sounding board for their thoughts, not to join in any crusade. Even if you disagree with something your friend is saying, try not to give a negative verbal or physical response. Your friend has gone out on a limb to trust you and open up to you. It’s your turn to respect their confidence and try and understand their point of view.
6. Don’t solve the problem
This may sound counterintuitive. After all, if you can easily solve your friend’s problem, isn’t it your job to do so? Actually, it’s much better to help them talk the matter through and discover the solution for themselves. As parents and teachers have learned, helping people solve their own problems is a much better alternative than creating a relationship of dependence. If you start magically solving your friend’s problems without any effort on their part, it will actually lead them to lose confidence in their own ability. That will sooner or later produce new strains in your friendship.
Every one of us needs a friend to listen to our troubles once in a while. Being a good listener is an art form, and once you master it, your friends will appreciate your role in their lives even more than they did before. They may even learn from you and become good listeners themselves when you need a sympathetic audience.