The Art of Listening (Or How Letting Other People Talk Helps You, Too)

Generally speaking, good listeners are good at other things as well.

I was reminded of that as I read a recent article, entitled ‘A Hostage Negotiator’s Top Tips for Talking to Frustrated Teenagers.’

(That’s a great headline, isn’t it?  I clicked straight away, even though I’m lucky enough not to have any frustrated teenagers around to talk to.)

“Too many of us try to put ourselves in another’s shoes but we can’t, every individual is different and (their) mood at the time is unique,” said the hostage negotiator in question, Richard Mullender.  He’s such a fan of good listening, that he started a company dedicated to teaching it.

But what is ‘good listening’?

When I was in my twenties, I joined The Samaritans as a helpline volunteer.

(For those who don’t know, The Samaritans is a charity that offers non-judgemental listening and support to people who are going through a difficult time.)

I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I signed up to be a volunteer.  The idea of being a person who others felt comfortable talking to had just felt appealing… and perhaps selfishly, the idea brought me some comfort, too.

Naïvely, I thought I’d be let loose on the phones almost immediately, but (thankfully!) The Samaritans didn’t work quite like that.  

I joined a group of around fifteen other would-be volunteers for an information evening.  Over coffee and biscuits, we were gently informed that we’d have to take an intensive six-week course on how to listen, before they’d even consider letting us take calls from emotionally vulnerable people.

Up to that point, I believed that listening was easy.  You just let other people talk, don’t you?  

But good listeners do much more than that.  They create an atmosphere of support that feels completely non-judgemental, so you feel safe and comfortable enough to talk about absolutely anything… or even not to say anything at all, until you’re ready.

When a good listener speaks, it won’t be to chime in with an opinion, or even to offer help.  They’ll just make sure you feel heard and understood, perhaps by repeating back something you’ve just said, or by asking an open-ended question. 

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” (Simone Weil)

Developing good listening skills means you can use them to help people in so many different ways, including at work.

A recent study cited in the Harvard Business Review showed that employees who had taken part in a ‘listening circle’ – in which participants are encouraged to talk about issues openly, honestly, and without interruption – suffered less anxiety and fewer worries about work-related problems than employees who hadn’t taken part.

Listening is also at the heart of my business as a professional writer.  Stephen King says that in order to be a good writer, you have to read a lot.  But I think you also have to listen a lot.  After all, creativity involves learning about, drawing from, and making connections between different ideas, and you can only come up with so many of those on your own.  

Plus, if a client wants me to write for them, the work has to contain more of them than of me.  It’s one reason why I don’t work with people who won’t talk to me about what they want first.  That conversation holds magic that will make the resulting words unique, authentic, and irresistibly readable.  

“When people talk, listen completely” (Ernest Hemingway)

In case you were wondering, I made it through that six-week listening course at The Samaritans.  Not to brag (too much), but I was one of only two people in my would-be volunteer group who passed the course, and became an actual volunteer.*  

During my time taking those calls, I was amazed by how often people would thank me for helping them, even though I’d hardly said a word.  

This happens now with my clients; people will thank me for helping them get clear on where their careers should go, or for solving a problem, or for coming up with new ideas for them to work on, when in reality, they came up with all of that themselves.  

I just listened while they did it.

(* When he told me I’d passed the course, my Samaritan trainer said, “you’ve got a tendency to let your mouth run away with you, but we’re going to give you a try.”  I’m very glad they did, because that course and the time I spent with them changed my life.  

However, over twenty years later I still have the same tendency, and I consider myself to be an adequate listener at best.) 

Sign up to get
exclusive news...