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Are You Really Listening? 4 Ways to Understand and Connect with People

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ~Ralph G. Nichols

My partner and I were in our first few months of a long-distance relationship. This was a new stage for us and it meant altering our communication practices. Instead of sharing meals and museum exhibits, we had weekly emails and Skype chats.

Every week, I would pour my heart into long, detailed emails to him. I would describe everything that I had done and thought over the past few days.

On Skype I would do the same. Excited to tell him about my life, I would recount all of my recent experiences.

On one such Skype call, my partner paused the conversation with a long and frustrated silence.

“What?” I asked.

He said, “You just told me all about you, but you didn’t respond to anything I said.”

His reaction surprised me. Weren’t we taking turns talking about our lives? Wasn’t that how a long-distance call was supposed to go?

Around the same time, I received a letter from a friend who lived across the country. We had been writing to each other for several years. I had recently sent her a letter telling her about my new job and my vacation plans.

She wrote back in exasperation, “You didn’t respond to anything I said in my last letter.”

Now I was shocked and a bit panicked. My first instinct was to be defensive. Didn’t my partner and my friend want to know about my life? Didn’t they care about me?

A troubling realization soon set in. If two different people were upset with me for the same reason, there was a good chance that I was the source of the problem and that I would have to take ownership of it.

I had always thought that conversations between people in any relationship meant taking turns talking about yourself. I believed that was how you found out information about each other’s lives. Wasn’t knowing about each other the framework of a relationship?

After thinking for a while, I realized that this approach had never been very successful for me. I had always struggled with feeling disconnected in my relationships. My bonds with others felt flimsy, as if they could crumble at any moment.

Despite being surrounded by people I called friends, I felt chronically detached and lonely. I often wondered, were relationships this shallow for everyone? Was I doing something wrong that kept me from tapping into true connection?

The moment that I realized my partner and my friend had both given me the same feedback—that I was not responding to anything they said—set me on the path to answering these questions. No, relationships did not have to be shallow. Yes, I was doing something wrong.

I was being a poor listener. My lack of listening skills was holding me back from truly connecting with the people I cared about most. I did not know how to listen receptively and responsively in conversation.

This realization was both terrifying and freeing.

Conversation is the workspace to create, build, and expand connection. Listening is the glue that fuses that connection. If we take turns talking without truly listening, the connection is brittle.

Fortunately, excellent listening can be learned. With dedication, I was able to dramatically improve my listening skills. As a result, I have built deeply fulfilling relationships that nourish my heart and soul.

Here are four power moves that I use to increase the quality of my listening and build stronger bonds with the people I care about.

1. I bring mindful attention to asking, “How are you?”

The way in which we choose to ask “How are you?” has the power to set a tone of either detachment or connection for the rest of a conversation.

I used to treat “How are you?” as if it were interchangeable with “Hello,” flattening it into a greeting instead of a question. I expected a perfunctory response and so that was what I received in return. This approach to “How are you?” communicated that I was more eager to talk about myself than to listen to the other person and thus set the stage for disconnection.

Now I treat “How are you?” as an invitation to connect by saying the words slowly, breathing into the phrase, and maintaining physical stillness. I transition my full presence to listening and bring the precious gift of my attention to the conversation. Attentiveness shows that I care and I want to learn more about that person.

2. I communicate interest by asking follow-up questions.

When I ask “How are you?” I may get the response “Good, I just got back from work.”

In the past, I would have responded “Great!” and moved on. Now I know that this common exchange is an important opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

Follow-up questions are linked to the speaker’s previous statement so they demonstrate the listener’s level of interest and attention. My favorite follow-up questions are open-ended and begin with “what” or “how” because they create the most space for the other person to expand their thinking.

Some examples that would apply to the situation above include “What are you currently working on?”, “How do you like your colleagues?”, and “What do you enjoy most about your work?”

Asking follow-up questions shows that I value my conversation partner’s ideas and experience. Communicating that someone’s words are valuable increases their self-worth. When I foster a relationship with someone that mutually feeds our senses of self-worth, we both find ourselves wanting to spend more time together.

3. I deepen the conversation with “Tell me more,” and “What do you mean by that?”

When we talk, we learn more about ourselves. We can explore our desires, motivations, and fears. When we support others to talk more about themselves, we help them uncover useful information about who they are.

By telling my friend, sister, or partner to “tell me more,” or by asking, “What do you mean by that?” I’m inviting them to learn more about themselves. I’m opening space for them to expand their thinking and thereby take up more space in our relationship and the world.

Invitations to take up more space are among the greatest gifts we can give in relationships.

4. I share the conversation space with “What do you think?”

Asking, “What do you think?” is my favorite technique to manage myself during conversations in which I am sharing opinions, theories, and ideas.

I am a passionate person and when I am inspired, I have a lot to say! However, unless I am giving a speech, I have a responsibility to my listener to maintain a shared speaking space and I honor this by ending my opinions with “What do you think?”

There is a distribution of power inherent in any exchange involving speaking and listening. If one person chronically dominates the speaking space without the other’s consent, there exists a violation of boundaries. Asking, “What do you think?” helps to maintain equality and respect in conversations and, consequently, in relationships.

These days, I employ these listening power moves regularly and continue to reap the rewards. I recently used them in a conversation with a former colleague. When she reached out to me via text message to ask a simple question, I took it as an opportunity to deepen our friendship.

She texted, “Have you renewed your professional license?”

My younger self might have responded with “yes” or “no” and left it at that, resulting in a shallow interaction. Because I wanted a richer relationship with this person, I used the listening power moves to connect with her. I brought my mindful attention to the interaction and responded with an open-ended follow-up question.

“No,” I texted back, “I have other career ideas right now. What is your thinking about your career?”

We switched to email and she shared her latest career goals with me. I responded to her ideas and then she asked me about my career goals. Over the course of our emails, we expressed and explored our thinking about who we were professionally and personally, made plans to spend time together, and ended up going on a road trip.

Feeling connected means feeling seen, heard, and valued for who we are. Our choices around how we speak and listen have the power to generate connectedness. When we bring a mindful presence and generous spirit to our listening, we open the doors to rich and fulfilling relationships.

About Lianna G. Ruben

Lianna G. Ruben is a writer, earth steward, and former middle school teacher. She is passionate about wild growth for people and plants. Her writing focuses on social and emotional learning for all ages. Learn more about her at liannagruben.com/ or @LiannaErica.

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  • Ashley

    I really liked your article! No one really talks about this and I think it should be talked about. Here is my issue. I am a great listener, I always have been. I ask all about my friends lives and get to know them well but its often never reciprocated and my relationships end up being one sided. Then they seem to mean more to me then the other person and in the end fall apart. Any suggestion for that scenario?

  • Katie Schultz

    Hi! I feel you in this regard. Unfortunately it might be that your friends are the problem and you need more people like you in your life. If you do have some friends you feel like the relationship is worth putting work into, maybe you can just be honest with them that questions and two-sided conversations are important for you to feel heard and appreciated. Regardless of how that goes, I think it’s important for you to just keep showing up in life as you have been and you will eventually attract people who reciprocate your level of interest.

  • Stephen O’Keefe

    Yes. I’m deaf and I’m amazed that many people who can hear don’t listen! We miss out so much when we don’t listen to each other. If you listen with your attention, eyes, and heart, you’ll connect with others so well. I did a TEDx talk on this: https://youtu.be/dx70vvOSlNY?t=13s

  • lv2terp

    What a wonderful, insightful and inspiring post! Thank you for sharing such great techniques and the reminder of the importance of connecting through listening!! 🙂

  • Tidy Simple Life

    I’m so glad to read that I am not the only one who struggles with talking more than she listens. I have caught myself doing this so often lately and I’m so ashamed! However, when I ask people more questions about themselves, especially if I have just met them, I feel like I’m “grilling them” and worry they think I’m being too talkative or invasive.

  • Lianna

    Ashley,
    You bring up a great point: what to do when you feel like you do all of the listening and it isn’t reciprocated. Thats frustrating!
    I agree with Katie that it could be your friends. Perhaps your generous nature attracts people who crave attention. You deserve friends who value and see you as much as you value and see them.
    On the other hand, many people (like me!) need help to improve their awareness about their listening and will be responsive.
    Here’s two tips I use to boost someone’s awareness:
    1. Emphasize when they do listen well: “I appreciate you asking about that, it means a lot to me. Thank you!”
    2. Pause long enough for it to be a little awkward instead of continuing to ask questions. That awkward moment sometimes is enough to prompt someone to say, “Oh, whats new with you?”
    Remember that you deserve to be heard too!

  • Lianna

    Hey Tidy Simple Life,
    Glad to hear you are working to be a more generous listener! The world will benefit from your efforts ; ). If your intention is be generous and inviting, then thats all you can control. If someone perceives that differently, it’s on them. Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!

  • Lianna

    Dear Stephen,
    What a beautiful TEDx talk! You deliver such wisdom with humor and grace. I love how you distilled the essence of great listening into those 3 areas. Thank you for creating this work and for sharing it here.

  • Lianna

    Iv2terp: I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jeanette Metz

    I wish everyone could read this article because it is so important and also very overlooked. We ask and answer so many surfaced questions on autopilot, and we are really missing out on the connections with people. Thank you for talking about this. This is a great reminder for me to really listen and connect with people rather than get caught up in my own thoughts.

  • Michael Clarke

    Beautiful article. So simple yet such an important quality to cultivate within oneself. Thanks for the article.

  • LovenoLimit

    I’ll be sure to take a look at this Stephen. Looking forward to improving my listening skills

  • LovenoLimit

    I agree with both Katie and Lianna Ashley. Your listening skills deserve better company. You having a conversation with them is like a caring, kind hearted individual being in a relationship with a selfish self centered individual.