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How To Be A Great Listener (In A World Where Everyone's On Their Phones)

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As a clinical psychologist, one of the biggest complaints that I hear from my clients — especially among those who are single and dating — is that no one ever listens anymore.

We all know the feeling: You’re sitting there having a perfectly good time — and then someone pulls out their phone. It’s the ultimate conversation killer.

Some of you may be thinking, What’s the big deal? We all do it. But I’m going to argue that it is a big deal. Human beings are profoundly wired for relationships, and lots of good things happen while we’re in conversation with each other that are completely imperceptible to us on a conscious level. Just a few of the benefits of deep listening:

  • Empathy: Face-to-face conversations with people tell us how they’re really doing. All of the tiny muscles in our faces, coupled with the intricate wiring in our brains, make it so that we're able to understand one another on levels that could blow a person’s mind. Have you ever been in the presence of someone who’s in a really good mood and felt your own mood brighten as a result? That’s called “emotional contagion,” and it is a very real phenomenon. That’s what I’m talking about here.
  • Information exchange: You know that thing we call “intuition?” It’s not actually all that mysterious! Human beings are wired to pick up data that registers at an unconscious level — and studies show that children are losing the ability to read nonverbal communication because they’re spending so much time looking at screens.
  • Release of oxytocin: It’s been called the “bonding hormone” because it makes people feel close to each other. It accounts for that awesome feeling you get when you’re having a great conversation with someone and you’re laughing, or crying, and just feeling super present.

So hell yes, I think it’s important that we put down our phones and actually talk to each other. And it all starts with each of us improving our listening skills.

Here are the top six things you can do right now to become a better listener:

1. Make eye contact.

Put down your phone, or whatever you’re doing, and actually look at the person you’re speaking with.

2. Adjust your body language accordingly.

There’s nothing creepier than saying something sad to someone who has a big smile on his or her face! Take note of your own facial expression while you’re listening and make sure that it’s appropriate for what the speaker is communicating.

3. Don’t think about what you’re going to say while the other person is speaking.

This one is super important, especially because it’s one of the most common communication mistakes.

It usually happens because the listener is a little anxious about saying the “right” thing, but trust me: Your response will be better if you allow there to be a beat of silence between what you hear and when you respond. It suggests that you’re thinking, and that’s never a bad thing!

4. Sincerely try to suspend judgment.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but it’s an important thing to work on. Judgment is nothing more than a handy crutch: something that allows you to feel superior for a moment, or something that acts as a form of protection from someone else’s suffering.

Standing in judgment of another person is nothing more than self-deception. Life is hard for everyone, and we’re all in this together.

5. Ask clarifying questions.

Per the tip above, if you’re inclined to judge another person’s circumstances, chances are you’re just not understanding what they’re going through. A great way to remedy this is to ask questions!

Make it your goal to sincerely try to understand where the other person is coming from. This alone could make you an incredible listener.

6. Make statements that prove you’re paying attention.

Just because we’re listening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker knows how hard we’re working for it. Communicate the fact that you’re listening by using active phrases like “What I hear you saying is …” When in doubt, name the emotion that you hear a person expressing, like “It sounds like you feel really frustrated right now.”

And if you’re curious to learn more about how you can get off the Internet and get back into your life, check out my new mindbodygreen course, How to Live Mindfully in the Digital Age.

Leslie Carr, PsyD author page.
Leslie Carr, PsyD

Leslie Carr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25306). She offers therapy and coaching, both in San Francisco and via Skype. More information can be found at