How To Really Listen – 4 Tips To Follow & 4 False Friends To Avoid

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” (Epictetus)

4 Things You Will Discover From This Post:

The First Step To Active, True Listening

The One Thing That Makes The Difference in Conflict Resolution

4 Tips To Follow To Do Active Listening

4 False Friends to Avoid When Truly Listening

Make yourself comfortable, grab a cup of tea and put aside a few minutes for this reading cause it’s a 2200 words article. (Which means that if You are a regular reader it will take You about 10 minutes. If you are a speed reader it will take You in between 2 to 4 minutes. Enjoy! 🙂 )

What does it mean to Listen?

Our ears are programmed to function 24h, even in our sleep. That’s how we hear the alarm clock in the morning, even in the deepest sleep.

But does that mean that are we actively listening 24/7? Nope, and we wouldn’t even want that.

Besides, most of the time we are lost in our heads.  In that space between our ears, listening to the voices there and not hearing anything from the outside world.

I love this joke about the “voices in our head” (pardon my french 🙂 )

How to listen

Leaving the joke aside, the first step to Truly, Really Listening is to silence these voices in Your head.

Yes. That’s it. It’s that simple. And as difficult to achieve for most of us.

Because we can’t stand the silence, we can’t stand the apparent “emptiness”.

So what do we do instead? We chatter constantly, we are quick to judge and to give advice, to show how competent and helpful we can be.

But in the mean time we ignore the person who is revealing herself. We don’t Really listen to Her, we listen to bits and pieces enough to give us food for what we want to say next.

How I Became Passionate About True Listening

My passion for true listening was born in my childhood. And it was born out of a mix of frustration, fear, anger and so many other negative feelings that were tormenting me while I was forced – because of the physical proximity – to listen to my parents fighting in the other room.

So, I didn’t have a “how-to” but a “how-NOT-to” model on listening and communicating. I feel this happened to me just like in the zen teachings about the lotus flower that grows out of the mud.

For many years I was in the dark. Although I had that “negative” model, the one that I swore never-ever-to-repeat in my life, guess what happened? I’ve found myself repeating in my relationships exactly the same patterns I’ve seen and observed in my family, although consciously I was trying to get as far as I could from them. Very. Very. Frustrating.

Then I began my (conscious) personal development trip: college studies in communication and psychology, books, psychologists, workshops, movies, retreats…whatever I thought it could help me, I would give it a try. I am still on this road, that I guess it would end only when I will be six feet under 😉

The difference I see now, as compared to the beginnings, is that the more I solve my “shit” the more I enjoy the road. Less drama queen – more enjoyment, less confusion and frustration – more maturity in my communication skills. It’s an ongoing emotional and intellectual roller-coaster, but I feel like the “downs” are less dramatic and the “highs” are more often.

The One Thing That Makes The Difference In Conflict Resolution

Probably there is no one family in this world who didn’t have her fair share of conflicts, fighting and debating.

Conflicts are natural, healthy processes, that arise when there is more than one person living or working in the same space and time. We are all unique and have different needs, so until we find harmonious ways to satisfy everyone’s needs, there will be conflicts.

However, the way we manage the conflicts makes the whole difference in between endless and pointless fighting and mature and conscious conflict management and resolution, one that will lead to a more honest, and stronger relationship.

And The One Element that makes the difference is Your ability to really, truly listen.

From my experience so far I would like to clarify some tricky aspects of the skills of active listening.

Because they are so easy to confuse with the “good” ones,  I would like to call them False Friends (FF).

The FF’s are the things we do out of love and friendship, because we want so much to help the person in front of us to get out of her misery. They come from our deepest and genuine desire to help someone in need. So that’s why so many people find it very difficult to accept it, when I tell them about the FF’s.

In order to be a better communicator, one should apply the principles of active listening in all the areas of his life. However, due to the high emotional involvement, the areas where this is most needed and most difficult to apply in the same time, is of course the area of couple and parent – child relationships.

To be more specific especially when our partner or child is going through a rough time or is just exposing something that puts him or her in a place of vulnerability.

To make things even simpler I will illustrate them using a recent personal story, where, because of my prior understanding of the FF’s in active listening I was able to handle things without extra unnecessary drama and any resentments. It was tough and challenging though, don’t let Yourself be fooled by the way I will share it here 🙂

The 4 Tips & 4 False Friends of Active Listening

The night before this happened I had a dream that reminded me of something very painful from my childhood. I wanted to write it so I would not forget it, but until then I thought it would be a good idea to share it with one of my flatmates.

I started sharing the dream and as I went along I also told him about the connections with that painful memory from my childhood. All of a sudden it was not just about the dream, I was transported in a very vulnerable space where all I needed was someone to listen and encourage me to talk.

He is usually a very good listener. However, this time, he jumped in to manifest his support and to give me advice before I had finished my story.

Tip#1: Listen all the way, until your partner has finished talking. 

FF#1: Interrupt with the intention to help.

Any interruption, during this stage, is doing nothing but harm. While the person is still exposing herself, she is in a very tender and vulnerable space. Any given help will do more harm than good now.

That’s what happened to me. I felt his intervention as invasive, and I felt like he was not really listening to me. So I told him: “when you do this, I feel unseen and like you are not really listening to me”.

Tip#2: Use the magic words: Aha, Uhum, OK, And…?, I see…, I hear You, And then…?  to encourage the other to keep talking and to reassure them of your presence.

FF#2: Interrupt with the intention to make the other feel better in an instant by :

– minimising the whole thing (oh, come on, it’s not that bad what happened...)

– adding what happened to You (let me tell You what happened to Me when....)

We do these FF ‘s because we can’t stand to see the other in such great pain and we think that if we minimise or bring in a personal story it will make the other feel better. Well, guess what? It doesn’t. It actually makes them feel not listened, unseen, ignored, unimportant…and so on.

Add body language that suggests your listening and receiving: tilted head, eye contact, arms open.This normally happens naturally when You are really listening. I am telling You this just to give you a heads up, in case you surprise yourself crossing your arms or legs, for example.

Tip#3: Use rephrasing to make sure you understood correctly. 

FF#3: Make assumptions about what s/he is feeling and not checking in their accuracy (most of the times, because we project, we are wrong.)

During this step, another way to make the other feel listened and accepted is to rephrase and try to guess his or her feelings.

For example, what my friend could have done (before jumping in directly to the 4th step) would have been to mirror my feelings or just rephrase what I was saying by really observing me and my non-verbal language as well. “So you feel scared and vulnerable now, because this dream has brought up this painful memory from your childhood” or something like that.

That would have given me the opportunity to continue and explore my story, even if it was a painful one for me. And even if he would have been wrong about my feelings I could have told him: “no, I am actually angry about this”, and then continue with my story.

Tip#4: When You think s/he has finished talking and feel like offering advice or support of any kind make sure that      

 s/he has actually finished

–   that’s what s/he wants/needs from You

How do You do that? Simply ask:

– is there anything else You would like to say now?

-how do You think I can support You? Would You like to hear my opinion/advice/ideas on how to solve this?

FF#4: Start offering – the instant the other has paused for a few seconds – Your ideas/advice/solutions.

We want to help someone in need, it’s our human nature. But often our helping comes from the Ego’s need to feel better: when we help, we fell  more powerful, we feel smarter, stronger, wiser than the one we help.

At the same time, if we hurry with offering our advice and solutions before making sure that’s what the other wants and  needs – we will rob him or her of the opportunity to solve the situation on their own. And also of  the chance of feeling the good emotions – like increased self esteem and self confidence – that would come along with discovering that solution.

Instead of helping, in this case, Your advice is rather harmful.

Often what a person in a vulnerable space needs is simply Your compassionate presence and listening. No advice, no reassuring words, no solutions.

S/he might need just to be held in a warm hug without any words. And when s/he has finished this process of self inquiry s/he might want also Your opinion. Or not. Either way, the important thing here is to show him/her that You are truly listening and accepting him/her by not imposing Your ideas and solutions.

This is one of the most difficult ideas to grasp on active listening: “Why should I shut up when it’s so clear for me that if s/he will do what I say, things will be so much better? Why should I leave the other person in suffering when I could help them get over it quicker?” And so on.

The answer is very simple: what is clear for You from the outside, might not Yet be clear for them. And they might need exactly this painful process to reach to that solution or even a better one, on their own.

Of course this doesn’t apply in physical & life threatening situations! You will not ask a person in flames or caught under a car, if she wants Your help to get out of there. You will just do whatever it takes to save her life. You get my point.

Wrapping-Up: How To Really Listen

#1 Silence the Voices in Your Head and Pay attention to Your partner

#2 Listen all the way, until the person has finished talking. Make sure of that by Asking them.

#3 Use passive listening words & body language to encourage them talk : Aha, Uhum, And then…? + tilt your head, maintain eye contact & an open posture.

#4 Use active listening like rephrasing their words and mirroring their feelings.

#5 Do not offer Your advice/solutions/opinions before asking permission to do so.  I repeat: Do not offer them otherwise no matter how badly You want to 🙂

Liked this article? Share it with your friends on FB, Twitter, Google+, email, whichever You prefer.

Let me know your experiences on either side of the active listening process: how does it feel for You when someone doesn’t or does really listen? How does it feel when You are the one really listening? I would love to hear about it.

If You want to know more on communication and listening You might like also these related articles:

-about the way our perception affects the way we see the reality here

– how to help a child express their emotions here

Thanks for reading until the end, You are awesome! 🙂

With all my love,


P.S.: Here’s a great, short video with the 4 mantras on compassionate listening and living from Thich Nhat Hanh. Enjoy! 🙂

P.P.S.:While I was writing the first part of this article a friend of mine sent me out of the blue, an excerpt from Geshe Michael Roach’s book The Karma of Love that was exactly about…guess what? Listening! It was 1 a.m., there was no way he could have known what I was working on, and he sent me exactly that. I love this synchronicity! Anyway, I’ve read that fragment and his approach on listening goes much deeper and into a more profound level than the one I’ve explained here. After I will read the book I will surely write about it.

P.P.P.S: You are Awesome, thank You for being around!

Header Photo Credit: daystar297 via Compfight cc

4 thoughts on “How To Really Listen – 4 Tips To Follow & 4 False Friends To Avoid”

  1. This is really great, turns out i am a good listener, but always thought until now that i wasnt. I sometimes think depending on the person i am listening to i have to be aware of how openly i care and connect, but i am gradually building away from that. I’ve been unconsciously developing in this area, but now i can develop more, thankyou.


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