How to Help Someone Without Saying a Thing

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”  Benjamin Disraeli

Listening. It’s a very powerful tool but unfortunately not well utilized.

I propose that if we all learned to listen better, there would be less of a need for therapists. I myself am a social worker and have been providing counseling to clients for years.

I have often felt that I was working as a well-paid or glorified listener; that if “lay” people could just listen better, there would be less of a need for professional listeners.

Those clients who simply need a safe place to unload and vent would already have a space where what they say matters for that time period, where they feel heard and acknowledged.

As human beings, we all have a universal need to feel heard and understood.

I might be going out on a limb to say that I find many people to be quite self-centered in their conversation, or perhaps I should say in their monologue.

They love to hear themselves talk, rarely ask the other questions, and when they finally allow the other person to speak, they quickly bring it right back to themselves.

In the book The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, there is a paragraph on this listening business.

Narrated by a dog, it reads “I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own.  People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly….  Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories.”

Tips to Listen Fully

1. Realize the distinction between listening and hearing.

Hearing is an auditory/physiological process. Listening involves the whole person—mind, heart, and soul.  Attentiveness, interest, and concern need to shine through.

Listen with your whole self. Forget yourself for a short while and show an interest. There’s so much to learn from people.  Everybody has a story.

2. Reflect back on what the other says.

Comment on it; it makes them feel heard. All too often we bring it back to ourselves. Let people feel that it’s all about them for that moment.

3. Be present and stay focused.

Stay with the other person’s talk. It’s obvious when the listener is simply thinking about his next comment.

4. Ask questions—meaningful ones.

Not the concrete 5 W questions (where, what, who, when, why). It shows you really want to understand the other person, not just participate at the bare minimum.

5. Acknowledge feelings.

I know this can sound like touchy feely stuff, but it’s the crux of good communication. It’s worth repeating again: when people feel understood, they’re less likely to get defensive and argumentative.

As human beings, our visceral need is to feel held, with words, rather than to receive solutions.

When we get the space and understanding we need, we can usually come to our own answers. And if not, there’s always time to brainstorm for possible solutions.

In the simple act of listening, you can reveal much to someone else. What if we all just listened more?

About Harriet Cabelly

Harriet Cabelly is a social worker, certified positive psychology coach, and life coach emphasizing living life to its fullest and creating a good life out of (or despite) adversity. Read more about her at Rebuild Your Life Coach and read the latest from her blog.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • Anonymous

    Hey thanks for the useful tips. I too find that most people like to hear themselves talk. Listening seems to be one of the most useful ways to make friends and to help people.

  • Anonymous

    Hey thanks for the useful tips. I too find that most people like to hear themselves talk. Listening seems to be one of the most useful ways to make friends and to help people.

  • Bill Bailey

    I wish it was a simple ack to listen. We go around trying to get connection with other people by trying to find a simular story of our own, we miss what they are really saying. I have a friend who is a good listener. It is amazing how wonderfull I feel when I am around her. You feel understood. It is a wonderfull gift to give to someone. I want to be better myself because of her gift.

  • Daniel

    In my country we have a funny quote that resume this text: When a donkey “speaks” the other lowers the ear. hehehe.

  • KailuaKid

    Listening is good, but there’s a point where it can become self-defeating for both the talker and the listener. I don’t believe you help someone if they are just spewing crap, unloading all their negativity and problems. If you are riding a bicycle and you are heading in the wrong direction then just stop pedaling (stop talking) and do a 180. Stop talking about your problems and just relax. Think of something positive in your life and start beating the drum about that.

  • If we all listened more, the world would be much more in tune. It is natural to relate circumstances to oneself, some would say human nature even. Listening, however, is a skill that we must acquire and in my opinion is not one that all people are individually born with. It is a skill, an art and a conscious choice. It requires separating oneself from their ego and becoming selfless.

  • Listen, listen, listen for all kinds of good reasons. It’s a powerful gift and skill, as well. Simple but overlooked too often. When we listen, we have to practice ‘hearing’, too.

  • Pingback: Today (September 10th) is Suicide Prevention Day. « Bound, Not Gagged()

  • I have to admit that I’m guilting of rambling on, but not because I like to hear myself do it. Most of the time I wish I’d shut up! But I agree with what you’re saying – if more people just listened, things would be a lot better!

    Thanks for writing this Harriet; I could always use a reminder to be more mindful about listening and it’s something I defintely try to practice when I can (I don’t often speak to people that much).


  • Wow, this piece is right up my alley. When I first sought out counseling a few years ago, I was looking for guidance, but mostly I just needed someone to listen and validate me. I had nobody in my life who was doing that or willing to do that. My therapist made such an impact on me that it made me realize that is the field I want to go into and I am now on the path to start grad school to get my masters in social work. I have often thought of what a difference someone can make in our lives (a professional or even just a mindful friend) when they are able to listen actively without bringing their own agendas or opinions into the conversation (unless asked for).

  • Thank you for the gentle reminder to be present in conversation. I’m guilty of always trying to think of something to say while others are talking because I’m worried the conversation will end and I hate awkward silences. Something I need to work on, for sure.

  • George Gogle

    Hi, its good subject surely and good insights here. But i would like to add important question: What is the main reason why people dont listen to each other? Once we identify this reason, it will be easier to eliminate this problem, dont you think? I believe the reason why we dont listen to others is the obsessive concentration on our Own Self, we sometimes are sick of our own Self, it is often like some swelling on our body..:) Once we realize that our own personality is NOT something separate from others, we will not have any problems in listening to what is worth listening. :-))

  • Thank you all for your wonderful comments.
    I will be upgrading my web site and soon be starting my own blog. This is giving me the motivation and confidence to go forth on my blogging journey.
    Thank you Lori. Your new site design is great!!

  • Great blog Harriet. I was thinking about this yesterday how we don’t listen well. The sign of a great actor is not what he says but how he listens on stage, can be said about life. Thank you for reminding us.

  • Beth

    What you say is so right on. It only takes a conversation when someone is not listening, to make you realize how important listening truly is.
    P.S. Love the picture accompanying your blog 🙂

  • Rweiner331

    Very thought provoking, as usual. Thanks for your valuable tips and insights on listening. I find listening to others to make for fascinating, thought provoking conversation, especially when you’re tuned in. It’s a terrific skill to learn and to develop, as it can deepen your insight into others. As I learned the skill of listening I had to tell myself not to worry that I would forget what I wanted to say and just concentrate and let it be. Perhaps I would find something better to add to the conversation than the original thought I had in mind.

  • Pingback: Being There « Rebuild Your Lifecoach Blog()

  • Pingback: Allowing Our Kids To Feel « Rebuild Your Lifecoach Blog()

  • Gertude Mcnair

    Nice blog.I like the content and think that this blog is full of rich contents.I also think that there is a need to improve the natural energyresources so that we can perform better.Thanks for this blog.I’ll refer it to my friends and will bookmark it

    imitation Zacposen handabgs

  • Pingback: New on 21 Ways To Build Strong Friendships()

  • Pingback: 21 Ways to Build Strong Friendships | Tiny Buddha: Wisdom Quotes, Letting Go, Letting Happiness In()

  • Pingback: 2 Things You Need to Form a Strong Friendship | Tiny Buddha: Wisdom Quotes, Letting Go, Letting Happiness In()

  • excellent
    thanks for sharing this.

  • Agreed. And attentive listening is not about being a doormat. Deep listening is about eliciting the feelings underneath the spew. Bringing those underlying feelings to the awareness of the client clears the feelings and spontaneously changes the dialogue.

    A really good listener won’t collude with spew. You’re absolutely right.. That doesn’t serve anyone.

    Personally I feel that a deep emotional charge cannot just be ignored. A space can be held for it to shift. And then by all means be as positive in your thinking from a more neutral space around an issue as you like.

  • Jason Holborn

    “by trying to find a simular story of our own, we miss what they are really saying”


  • Jason Holborn

    “All too often we bring it back to ourselves. Let people feel that it’s all about them for that moment.”

    Ouch, this one hurts, as it is a challenge I personally face. 🙁

    So often, in listening to someone, I feel that relating to them a similar feeling or experience or challenge IS connecting with them, IS engaging with them, IS about them. However i have learned that thus is almost always NOT the actual, ultimate effect, and that the speaker feels disconnected.

    I’m really trying to change or evolve that instinct.

    Thanks Harriet

  • vape nexus

    I loved this. I want to add an extra “W” to that 5 W list though, the 6th would be “Wow”. All to often I hear that remark at the end of a story I tell but then no real input is given afterwards to support their “Wow”. Not to say saying wow is bad but if that’s all that’s said it seems like an indicator that they’re trying to please, rather than process.

  • vape nexus

    “Wow” .. and? you should follow up by stating what inspired you to say Wow, so people don’t misinterpret what you’re implying.

  • Jason Holborn