Listening Techniques

Samples from Dr. Jim Petersen’s Collection

As listeners your job is to focus on what the talker is saying. Two heads are only better than one when both are focusing on the same story (point of view). Avoid slipping your story, concerns, experience into the other’s turn to talk. Taking turns provides support to one person at a time and is a way for you to build understanding, growth, new solutions and real friendships.

You’ll see punctuation mark combinations (…?) you’re not used to. When used this way they mean less than a direct question, a handing back to the talker in a gentle way what you hear the talker saying so the talker can clarify, pick it up and go further.

Use bodily, verbal, tonal ways of indicating that it’s okay for the talker to feel or be the way they are. Acknowledging is a non-argumentative acceptance of what the talker says. And slow down your pace. (Kid whines, “It hurts!” You say softly, “Mmm, it hurts…?” not “Oh, it can’t be that bad!”)

Repeat last paragraph, last sentence, last few words or the last word. Emphasis is on accurate feedback. Works well to allow talker to continue. When all else fails, just do this and keep it up. It will give you surprising results. (Repeat: “…could have committed murder…?” or “…murder…?”)

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Put talker’s feelings (emotions) into your words. “Para” means alongside or next to. Having the talker hear what they feel translated through your experience into your words helps them to get clear about what they are feeling. You can guess about their feelings, even if they haven’t put them into words. You can be poetic or dramatic in putting their feelings into your words. (“You’re so fried, you could go up in smoke and blow away…?” or “Mmm, really upset…?”)

Put talker’s thoughts, ideas, views and perceptions into your words. Same as preceding except we’re dealing with thoughts here not feelings. (“So you think Harry conned you into giving him the money…?”)

After listening awhile you have a guess about what’s going on with the talker. Try it on for size by asking. (“Say, I have a wild idea about what may be going on here. Let me try it on you…. How does that grab you…?”)

When you feel the urge to answer, solve, give advice, defend, share your wonderful ideas or fill the talker in on who died from their dread disease, bite your tongue, clamp your hand over your mouth, tap your pencil, or clean your pipe. (Teeth marks in the tongue are one of the signs of a good listener. From: Why Don’t We Listen Better?) (“Hmm, that’s a tough one…?” Or “Hmm, I’ll be darned…?” Or “Hmm, gosh…?”Or “Hmm, what do you think of that?”)

Acknowledge talker’s mixed feelings and allow talker to relax about not being single-minded or having one clear motivation. (‘On the one hand you love her…?” “And on the other hand you want to embarrass her…?” “You could hug here and leave her all at the same time…?”)

People sometimes are supported by knowing that you are responding emotionally, that is, that they elicit some human response from you. Expressing your feelings can do that, but watch the temptation to go on to your stuff and stop listening to them. (“I get excited, frustrated, scared, etc. when I hear you talk about that. Now you were saying…?”)

Letting the talker know that you don’t understand opens the door for them to fill you in and in the process see more clearly what they are thinking. (“I don’t understand what you mean…?” “Help me understand…?” Or “Say that again, I didn’t get it…?”)

Ask questions, gather information, fill in pieces, listen for connections and relationships, sort, compile, spread out info for all to see. Every situation has a past, present and future. Find out what led up to this situation, what exactly is going on now and what are the future ramifications. But do this gently, finishing with …?

Toward the end of a conversation, ask about possible next steps, alternatives and consequences. Remember that problems have right and wrong answers and predicaments have options, each with positive and negative consequences. It helps decision-making when we realize that most decisions we face are predicaments.

Seldom is leading the witness appropriate in listening, but sometimes when the talker is reviewing possible action choices where some are negative, it can be useful. (“How would that help…?” Or “What can you learn from this situation to help you next time…?” Or “What could you do that might improve things just a little…?” Or “How would that improve your situation…?”)

People get blocked with fear about what could happen. Help them through it by asking them to talk about the absolute worst that could happen. Then ask them what they would do if that were to happen. Your question assumes there is life beyond their present predicament. (“What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen…?” … “Hmm, divorce…?” … “Then what would you do…?”)

“Toward the end of a conversation, ask about possible next steps, alternatives and consequences.”

These sample listening techniques have been expanded throughout Why Don’t We Listen Better? Most include a page or more of guidance and examples to help you become an effective listener. Listening better will improve your relationships and make life easier for you.