Say the Right Thing … When Listening to Someone

Posted by


Most of us truly believe we’re good listeners. We smile, we nod in agreement, we’re supportive. But are we truly setting aside judgment—striving to understand? And how well do we respond? Because it’s the response—the feedback—that signals we’ve heard the message as intended.

Listening well and responding appropriately takes a fair amount of self-control. A good listener works to completely understand what the other person is saying—without judging, without giving advice. (We recently wrote an article about ineffective listening responses, loaded with advice on what not to say. This new article gives suggestions on the right ways to respond.)

ThinkstockPhotos-508422301The appropriate response after listening completely, of course, depends largely on the situation and the person:

Reflecting, probing, using attentive body language, deflecting and advising are five responses available to you as a communicator, suggests If you’re in a situation (or role) where you’re asked to give someone advice or counsel someone, advising and deflecting would be appropriate. Otherwise, reflecting and probing are good choices.

Reflecting is paraphrasing, something most of us have attempted awkwardly. No matter how you try it, repeating back to someone the very thing they’ve just told us feels contrived. “So if I understand you correctly, you’re feeling sad because your boss didn’t notice all your hard work last week.” It’s just not a phrase most of us would use in everyday conversation. Reflecting takes practice so it sounds natural.

Instead of simply parroting back, try summarizing the key points and then asking a question (probing). “So, that’s a tough situation—you’ve worked the past two weeks, your co-workers haven’t shown up, and no one’s even noticed your effort …. Has this happened before or is this the first time?” Again, the process of reflecting and asking clarifying questions should be nonjudgmental. Your goal is to make the other person feel understood. They haven’t asked for your advice. They just want to be heard.

ThinkstockPhotos-515598608If you’re more the silent type, listening and nodding is also an acceptable response, suggests If a co-worker is expressing frustration over an expanding workload or unacknowledged success (venting), the key is to convey that you’ve heard. Also appropriate might be: “That must be so frustrating” or “I can see how that would upset you, tell me more.”

However, if the person venting has been complaining to you daily for a month, your response might need to change. Here’s an article devoted to handling complaining co-workers.

Another scenario where reflecting and probing would be appropriate is when you’re getting feedback or someone is confronting you. Very different than merely listening to another person’s complaints, this is more personal— requiring more self-control. But, you still need to let the other person know that you understand what they’re saying. (Even if you don’t agree, the goal is always to first make sure the other person feels understood.)

Why is it important to first let the other person know we understand?

  • Reduces defensiveness
  • Opens the door to “how we can both get what we want”
  • Clarifies values and end results
  • Jointly develops a third alternative

Start by creating the attitude and the ability to understand using this checklist:

  1. Do I have a win-win attitude?
  2. Have I released my attachment to my attitudes and positions?
  3. Have I become open to the fact that other perspectives exist?
  4. Do I consistently reflect my understanding of the other person?
  5. Do I focus on feelings as well as words?
  6. Do I watch nonverbal cues to discern feelings?

Woman and her boss discussing online data and looking through sales newsSo, that covers why we seek understanding and how to prepare mentally.

Next, a little more about probing … we want to gather information by using conversation-encouraging questions. Don’t interrogate, but consider what you know and what information you’re missing or assuming. Get clarification on who, how, what, where, when, which and why. Affirm your understanding as you go along by repeating the information back to them in your own words. In the feedback scenario above, you could say, “So you feel the procedures I’m using are slowing down the overall process? What would an ideal schedule look like for your team?”

If you have your own set of constraints that are keeping you from getting things finished on time, ask the other person if he or she would be open to discuss a better schedule that works for both of you given your own constraints. “Could I give you a quick idea of what’s happening schedule-wise on my end before this project gets to you?” Avoid placing blame and don’t make excuses if you really just need to step up your game. For more information about receiving criticism, check out this article.

Deflecting and advising, two responses most of us unfortunately overuse when listening, should be reserved for counseling. Deflecting is when someone is telling you about something that’s happened to them and you use that as an opportunity to talk about yourself. Advice is also something most of us offer before it’s been asked for.

There are scenarios where these two responses do work. One example would be if you’re the boss, giving negative feedback, and your employee is explaining his or her behavior. Your role suggests that you advise them on the correct behavior. (Although a boss using a coaching technique would rely more on reflecting and probing.) Here’s an article with more details on coaching.

Responding well is part of the listening process. Respond in a way that signals to the other person that you understand what they’re saying. Ask clarifying questions. Periodically affirm your understanding by repeating the information back to the other person. Unless you’re invited to give advice, keep your stories and feedback for a later conversation.

jake gyllenhaal donnie darko ear im listening im all ears


Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.