National garden Japan
blogging, Mental Health

Communicating by Listening to What Other

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Ernest Hemingway

A study showed that 70% of our waking hours are spent in communication with others, in some form, with almost half of that time taken up in listening. Reading, talking and writing were way down on the list.

So given that we spend so much of our communication in listening to others, do we do it effectively?

In his book, People Skills, Robert Bolton claimed researchers estimated up to 75% of oral communication is either ignored, misunderstood or quickly forgotten. Furthermore, he maintains that the quality of our friendships and the cohesiveness of our family relationships depends largely on our ability to listen.

“That went in one ear and out the other.”

Learning to be an effective listener takes work. It’s not something that we are actively taught to do in our schooling, so how can we listen better?

Reflective Listening and Attending the Conversation

Are we always fully present and attending the conversation? Or thinking of the next thing to say? For instance, do we always follow the speaker in conversations and listen for the deeper meaning behind the words?

In true listening, we reach behind the words, see through them, to find the person who is being revealed.”

Robert Bolton

Paraphrasing the essence or intent behind the words you hear, can assist in conveying that you have understood correctly, (or give the speaker the chance to otherwise clarify what they meant).

Summarizing the content of another person’s words may nurture a deeper level of trust between them. Trust encourages the other person to further open up and may build more satisfying relationships.

Use Questions Wisely

If we notice a change in the body language of others, we might see cues that they are bothered by something. For example, a child comes home from school looking sad and the reaction from others is sometimes, “Come on, cheer up!” An adult who is becoming agitated about a situation is told, “Calm down.”

This is usually the last thing they want to hear!

Instead of dispensing advice, which generally doesn’t work, asking open-ended questions may help folks who are feeling burdened divulge what is troubling them, especially if you give them a non-coercive invitation to talk.

What is the best way to do that?

Firstly describe the other’s body language – “You look as if something is bothering you.” Or: “You look troubled/sad.”

Secondly, invite them to talk:

  • “I’ve got time if you would like to chat.”
  • “Do you feel like talking?”
  • “I am here if you want to talk about it.”

Be wary of leading the conversation by asking more than one question at a time. Most questions can be re-phrased as a statement. It is good to remember that questions should help the other clarify the problem, rather than provide information.

The beginning of wisdom is silence. The second stage is listening.

Hebrew Sage

Silences in Conversations

Don’t be put off by pauses or silences as these momemts may allow the other person time to think of their answer or expand on what they want to say, at their own pace. During a pause in the conversation, you can still be fully present in the conversation by:

  • Using eye contact
  • Observing the other person’s gestures, facial expression during pauses
  • Adopting open encouraging, non verbal body posture and language
  • Keeping distractions such as checking the phone notifications, loud background etc music, TV to a minimum.

Focus on the Feelings and Emotions

Feelings are often triggered by specific events.

boat at the beach

Society’s norms implicitly teach us to suppress our feelings with the undesired result that they might bubble up and overflow. If everyone acted on impulse and expressed feelings spontaneously, society would completely disrupt. So we have a balancing act between blocking our sensitivity to emotions and freely expressing them. Reflecting emotions and feelings back to the speaker is a way of doing that while respecting the speaker’s privacy.

For instance:

I asked my daughter how her date went last night. “Okay.” was her subdued response. She wasn’t ready to talk about it, and was letting me know not to probe further. If I had not noticed her tone of voice, it could have meant it was just an average date. Her tone and body language was the key to deciphering the true meaning behind the words. Letting her know I was available, if she wanted to talk, gave her the chance to raise the subject when she was ready.

In developing empathy and reflecting the emotions of others, we can ask ourselves – if you were having that experience, how would we be feeling? Then we can put together the feeling, or emotion, and the fact with a familiar formula often used by professionals:

“You feel/are ..(insert the emotion or feeling word )….. since/because….(insert the trigger event or content associated with the feeling).

For example:

Bob: “My supervisor keeps asking questions about my personal life. I wish he’d mind his own business.

Marie: “It sounds like you are feeling pretty annoyed because he won’t respect your privacy.”

Something Further to Ponder

Have you used these techniques to improve conversations and support friends or colleagues? If so, how did they respond?

Are there other ways to develop better listening skills?

101 thoughts on “Communicating by Listening to What Other”

    1. I imagine that you would pay attention to what the other person is saying, M-R and get the oblique references too! How are things down your way? Keeping warm with all the crocheted projects you are busy with?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had my final visit from the washing-maching repairman, so ran the heater for him – wearing, he was, a short-sleeved t-shirt under a sleeveless puffer jacket. I mean, honestly ..!! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hands up here too, Jo for forgetting the fundamental guidelines for listening. We all can forget sometimes, but the more we think about it, the more we can actively aim to do it. This reinforcement will help make it a recurrent habit! I wonder why we forget every now and again. Are we busy/distracted/have something on our minds?


    1. I just mentioned this likely justificiation to Jo in the previous comment, Gerard. I quite agree that many of us are too busy to give the time to others who may want to divulge a lengthy story. I wonder if instead of shutting down the conversation too quickly and rushing off, we can politely excuse ourselves and offer to take up the discussion again at a proposed later date? Would that be plausible? The trouble is that it is important to remember to follow through or else it is an empty promise. I can think of many occasions when someone has promised to get back , but let me down. I have even used this when I have a nuisance caller who refuses to understand I don’t want a call back from them. It felt awful but it was effective. They stopped ringing.


          1. One topic I have banned from inclusion is any client stories. For the purposes of this subject I will make just one exception. When finishing a period of work with one woman she said she had done nothing but cry for the first two years and I had said nothing; had I done so she would never have come back. We both knew that this was an exaggeration, but she was stressing how important was my silence in accepting her tears.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thank you, Derrick. I realise that privacy would prevent you from relating any personal stories, so I was referring to concepts rather than any individual stories. So I really appreciate you sharing the example of the importance of silence. It can be very tempting to console others who are very upset with the usual platitudes but you wisely chose to do just what she needed. Time to grieve and process her emotions. If only all counsellors were as intuitive in their dealings with clients.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. I often write these posts to share the information but also to inwardly remind myself to practise the skills, Anne. When life gets chaotic, it is easy to quickly brush people off instead of giving them a listening ear for a few moments. But what are a few moments?
      I feel those extra few moments spent really listening to someone may be much more useful to the speaker than whatever else we were rushing off to do.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. This is often the case. The mind can become so busy with thoughts. We can simultaneously listen to someone, think about what we want to say next, remember a past event, notice something in the background, judge the other person, think about how they are judging us, etc etc. The mind is capable of it all, at a cost. The cost being divided attention. The more thoughts going on in our heads seems directly correlated with how productive the conversation is, as well as how much empathy and genuine interest we can allocate.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Amanda, well said. This quote reminded me of what a social worker would preach to her staff to do when helping their clients.

    “Are we always fully present and attending the conversation? ”

    The importance of watching for body language cues is excellent, as well. Thanks for sharing this. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for that input, Keith. It sounds like even trained staff need reminding now and again. The minds become so busy and occupied with thoughts. Can you imagine how productive and empathic conversations would be if we could choose to maximise and target our attention better?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I think that is so true. Names used to be easy for me to remember. Now, they fly out of my memory like a rocket. I really have to concentrate and repeat the name when it is first said.


  2. This is one of the most difficult skills to learn. I catch myself often not really listening and am continually working at it. I even bought a box of listening cards to remind me that I need to be more mindful of active listening. Perfect subject.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Listening cards, Marlene? They sound great? I would love to share some of their wisdom if you can? We can all do with more practice. I don’t believe there can practice listening too much. For me, minimising distractions is the way to check my level of attention to a speaker. Can you say what it is that is distracting you on those occasions when you catch yourself?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Like many of us, Sarah, we might know what to do and how to listen, but we do not always practice it. That is why I find reminding myself via a post like this is a good way to ensure others are getting my full attention. There are so many distractions in our modern lives. Sometimes I wonder if having too much choice in our lives is a hindrance to the sense of community and empathy we give others.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. There is no doubt that many of us are fond of speaking about our own experiences during a conversation and that is one of the reasons for not listening properly to what the other person has said. So then I begin to wonder why it is that we are so keen to tell our story to others? Does this need stem from the education system when we were rewarded by the teacher for speaking up well in class; do we recount our experiences to benefit or to impress others, to cast advice, or to share and disclose information that may deepen a friendship or relationship? Or maybe a mixture of all those and other reasons?

          Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for saying that, Laurie and I don’t think you are alone! Everyone can use more practice.
      That feeling of thinking of what it is we can/must/want to say when our turn in the conversation comes is something many of us know and do.
      I was thinking as I wrote this post that the inability to fully attend, truly listen and empathise with a speaker may even arise for other reasons, not just from our own memories that are triggered in the mind by the conversation topics.
      For instance, folks suffering from social anxiety are so consumed with pleasing others and not being seen negatively however their mind is chock full of judgemental/negative thoughts about themselves or how they appear. When it comes time for them to respond or answer or participate in a conversation, they are often rendered completely speechless. This demonstrates the brains’ difficulty with managing simultaneous functions of thinking and initiating speech. Some people are better at it, than others. Something has to be sacrificed physiologically and attention to the other person often gets relegated first.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, I love your thought provoking blogs reminding us to be quieter, kinder, have empathy & stop & smell the flowers. I try to always not just listen but hear, the importance of that came many years ago, sometimes really hearing can be a life changing experience. Someone I was getting to know years ago was surprised that I remembered how she had her cuppa. Given how my memory is, I was to, lol. I told her that everyone is precious & if you can’t be bothered with the little things then why bother, she burst into tears shared her horrible marriage situation, with 3 children under 6, no one knew, it’s the little things that we pay attention to that can have the biggest impact. Who knew a cuppa & a kind word. We organised a support network through our church & got her & the kids safely out. Because of this brave woman speaking out it created a snow ball effect as there was another young family in crisis, the 6 children involved ended up being fostered out to families within the church.
    Sorry if that was a bit long winded but I believe in the importance of what you share. Have a wonderful week ahead neighbour friend.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that wonderful example of hearing and listening, Linda. As Derrick mentioned, you don’t always have to say anything much at all, but you do have to convey a willingness to listen to the other person, if they are to feel comfortable divulging their private feelings. Giving your friend the opportunity to feel trusted and secure enough to speak up and then offering the support she needed at that moment in time was not only really listening well but being ready to respond with direct and tangible action. Many times people are empathic in their words when a friend is ready to tell them their darkest secrets then after several minutes, abruptly move on when the conversation gets too hard. This leaves the needy person hanging without follow up and a fool for having opened up about their problem. Your friend and the secondary family is lucky that you were genuinely willing and wanting to assist.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lot of food for thought in this post Amanda. Thanks for taking the time to give us this summary of the book. I have often thought that you have good social skills. Went to an interesting talk recently about emotional intelligence. The speaker said behind every uncomfortable feeling is an unmet need. If we can detect what it is and incorporate it into our reflecting it helps the other to feel better heard and understood and perhaps helps them to process their situation more productively.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Sharon! What a lovely surprise to read your comment here. Listening was just one topic in Bolton’s book, so there may be more posts in this vein to come, in future! Lol.
      As for emotional intelligence, I feel that personally, I still have work to do in elevating mine! Because of that, the speaker you mentioned made an interesting suggestion. I think many human responses and feelings can be traced back to unmet human needs.
      Blogger Mabel Kwong and I used to dissect quotes and old sayings for several years on my regular Sunday posts – (yes they’ve been around for that long!) Often we would make inference to Maslow’s heirarchy in that discussion.
      I think the role of each person’s individual physical/mental/social and emotional needs are incredibly relevant to understanding motivation. You make a great point that it is something that might be carefully woven into a reflective listening response. Anything that encourages a deeper sense of trust and disclosure between persons and the feeling that they have been truly heard may better communication! Thanks, Sharon.


  5. Ive always been in a situation where I sometimes awkward while having a conversation with others.
    Though it doesn’t because that I dont listen them or I bad interprets them.
    I just because the words that are on my mind doesn’t come out the way I want them to. I hope you understand what Im saying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do understand Ritish and have felt that way many times. If you are speaking in a language other than your own, it can be quite intimidating. Other reasons too why you might feel intimidated by the other person. This makes you feel self-conscious and takes away energy from that part of your brain that forms speech. Then we might stutter, mispronounce the word or forget it completely. So I get it and if you are anything like me, you feel flustered when it happens. I find concentrating on deepening my breath and taking pauses to collect my thoughts. ( This is easier to say than it is to do). Thinking about the other person’s feeling sometimes helps too.
      Shallow breathing, which we do when we feel anxious, seems to make these, so-called’brain freezes,’ worse. Good luck with finding a way through.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I clearly understand what you said.
        I started taking deep breath and short pause in between the conversations when I feel like I might be mispronouncing words or words aren’t coming out the best way. It helps a lot to make conversations smooth and healthy.
        But I dont know if it happens or not, but that pause or awkwardness sometimes leads to nervous laughter which I considered to be bad.
        But I still practising it. Thank-you

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the accurate comment. There is a lot of noise in communication. We have to get better at filtering out the rubbish and this article aimed to assist with that. I will definitely check out your link.


  6. Wow! Listening is a biggie! If we all learned to listen better, can you imagine the world we would live in?

    I am particularly thinking about silences in conversation. This is something I think most of us are uncomfortable with – I can definitely think of the many times I filled silences with chatter just because I felt awkward. But to think of these silences as a courtesy to & consideration of the person we are conversing with puts a completely new light on the matter.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Communication would most certainly improve if we listened better, or at least we may improve understanding.
      Silences are tricky to manage and I think it depends on the people in the room/venue. Old friends are very comfortable with silences as there is that implicit trust. I think if the person is a new friend, it becomes very uncomfortable, but it should not be that way, should it?


      1. I’m afraid this season of self-imposed isolation has put my social skills to the test. I’ve almost forgotten how to be around company.

        These days, even with new people, I tend not to be so anxious. So, I think the desire to fill in silences has diminished.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting side-effect that I didn’t expect from self imposed isolation. To have that kind that of benefit is surprising but welcome, I think. We found another silver lining to Covid. Stillness and comfort in silences.


              1. Indeed. I often think about life in the 19th century and earlier, or during a war. The skills of getting on with what you can do in any given situation, would be highly valued. There was in many communities little joy in life and yet when we observe poor communities in rural areas today, they are often smiling!


  7. Great post. If I may add, it is important not to be the conversational narcissist, who turns the conversation back to himself every time. And as you said, the silences are powerful too. We can stop and ponder at what has been said.

    A key exception, one personal to myself, is this: When the person feeling down is highly introverted, I feel it is important for the consoler to keep talking, at a slow pace, in a monologue of sorts, making himself vulnerable. This is because the introvert will not break the glass once there has been silence for 5 minutes.
    Sorry for the long comment.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Long comments are always very welcome at StPA! You mentin two very important things: not to think of conversations as time to talk about your experiences alone. It is vital to take the tone of the conversation. It is awful to have someone divulge something sensitive about themselves eg. “I am feeling really down,” only to have the other party rabbit on about how that happened to them also. I feel a conversation has to sway subtely one way and then the other with disclosures and gently enquiries on both sides. We don’t get it perfectly balanced every time but that is okay, too. As long as the intention is there.
      Secondly, as an introvert, I love your comment about breaking a silence. Pauses are good but for introverts, silences are doubly awkward and they long for the other party to say something. Introverts fail to think of something to say, so a question or the raising of a topic is a good opener for them to join in the conversation again. Would it be fair to say that it sounds like you are very empathic towards those more introverted individuals?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. It’s more like I was one of those individuals myself. After someone passed away, I felt super catatonic, wanting to shut down just as a computer gives you blank when you cut the electricity. Then, I felt grateful to have another person whom I liked, who closed the door and just sat by my side saying nothing at first. And then he tried to keep me engaged, slowly saying silly stuff, not too exaggerated or off topic. He saw my vulnerability and exposed his own vulnerabilities, his mistakes. It felt like watching a movie. We didn’t even look at each other as we sat beside each other. After 90 minutes of his monologue, he said he’d be pleased if I opened up, and I did.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. How blessed to have a caring friend such as this when you are experiencing such intensity of distress. The friend must be someone with a high level of emotional intelligence. A family member of mine was in a similar way during adolescense and he told me that my presence and occasional comment here and there was comforting to him. The presence of another human may at times cause distress but if their intention is pure and they are someone who obviously cares, they sound like they can be so valuable to any of us struggling with their mental or physical health. Your friend has managed the silence perfectly.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. We live in a world where everyone is vying for attention and shouting their message over the noise hoping to be heard, but not really caring that the opinion of another might enrich/change/deepen theirs. ‘Let’s start the conversation’ has become a convenient catchphrase that implies ‘conversation’, but really means I want you to hear me. Personally, I think we all need a reminder that there is a big difference between talking and having a conversation. Excellent post. Spending the weekend with friends and will practice my ‘listening’ skills!!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Communication has always been in my radar, Amanda. I am continually learning ‘the art of communication.’ My career as a Dental Hygienist for over 25 years helped me hone my listening skills and I always feel there is still much to learn. The concept of nonverbal communication is huge. You remind me how blogging is also very much communicating. You bring up great points….body language, use questions wisely. I extra like your quote “The beginning of wisdom is silence. The second stage is listening.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am glad you liked the quote, Eric/ka. In your work as a dental hygienist, and for me working in Allied Health, it was dealing with people in care of their bodies at close range. We had to do our job efficiently whilst calming the client, making them feel comfortable. It is a skill! And communicating effectively takes time. No doubt you developed many skills and in similar way to you, I feel I could always learn more. I guess in your role, body language was critical as the client can not always answer if you are working on their teeth! At times, I would work with clients who had no verbal speech, so then observing body language became paramount in communicating.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I try to listen intently and I believe I do this with lots of questions, but I love that this post gives me new tools and things to keep in mind when talking to others. I love the paraphrasing idea and just like you said it keeps a conversation from being taken out of context or going south by periodically allowing the other person to clarify what they mean during the conversation! Genius! I also like the idea of inviting people to talk about their feelings when they are ready. For me I like when people do this. I don’t always open up, but it does allow me to feel safe and like I can if I need to.

    Liked by 1 person

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