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Listening Well


One of the most important steps to having good relationships at work, at home, and with friends is to listen well. What's surprising is that for most people, listening well is very difficult. For most of us, talking is much easier than listening. Misunderstandings are very common in interactions between people as a result of poor listening. Plus, listening may be especially challenging for people with PTSD because it is easy to get distracted or hyper aroused. In this section, you'll read about what it means to really listen to what someone is saying and how you can improve your listening skills to build more satisfying relationships.

What does it mean to really listen?

It means listening with understanding.

What makes listening difficult?

Listening well takes attentiveness. Attention is often difficult when you are tired, distracted, under stress, or experiencing some of the symptoms associated with PTSD. Listening well means having the patience to hear someone out. It means being able to restate someone else's words, thoughts, and opinions, even if you may not agree with them.

If you find yourself doing any of the following, it may be a sign that you are not listening well in your communications with others. These are habits that can keep you from developing and maintaining good friendships and relationships.

  • You find yourself cutting people off and finishing their sentences.
  • You find yourself distracted, tuned out, or thinking about other things while someone is talking to you.
  • You interrupt people to give them advice or tell them what to do before they are done speaking.
  • You listen just enough to decide what you will say in response. You are constructing your response before the other person is done talking.
  • Others may find you arrogant, impatient, or uninterested.
  • You hear from other people that you don't understand them.

Listening well

True listening is listening for understanding. When you listen for understanding, you hear the entire message someone is sending. That means hearing more than just the words, but also understanding body language and mood. It means asking questions and clarifying what you think you are hearing to make sure you understand completely. It is at this level of listening that meaningful relationships are built and maintained. This includes work relationships, relationships with friends, family, and loved ones.

Here are the keys to listening for understanding...or listening well!

Clarify what is being said. Clarifying means getting additional information about what has been said and why. It also means asking questions in a non-defensive fashion, as if you were just trying to understand without being critical. To clarify, you ask questions such as

  • "Tell me more. Why do you think...?"
  • "Why do you say that?"
  • "What do you mean by..."

By clarifying, you are making certain you really understand what the person is saying.

Confirming what has been said and why. You confirm what has been said by stating your understanding of their thoughts. Remember, confirming does not necessarily mean you agree with what has been said - it only means that you understand what was said. When you use the skill of confirming, you keep channels of communication open and avoid discouraging other people from talking with you. Confirming is especially valuable before responding to a statement with which you disagree. Confirming demonstrates that you understand the other person's position. This tends to encourage the other person to keep an open mind when you respond with your own thoughts.

Some ways to confirm are:

  • "So, my understanding of your idea is..."
  • "In other words what you're saying is..."
  • "In other words..."

Reading body language. Listening for understanding means paying attention not only to what someone is saying, but how they are saying it. For example, body language will tell you if someone is happy or angry, tense or relaxed. You can ask about body language to help make things clearer for yourself. For instance, you might say, "You look upset. Is that correct?" Here are some body language signs to watch for:

  • Facial expression. Is the person smiling? Frowning? Looking perplexed? Is the person's face red?
  • Body posture. Are the person's shoulders tense or relaxed? Are they breathing slowly and regularly (a sign they are relaxed) or in short tight breaths (a sign they may be tense)?

Your own body language. Your own body language sends out a message to others about whether you are listening to them. Here are some ways to send out body language to show that you are listening.

  • Keep eye contact with other person to show you are interested in what is being said.
  • Nod to show you hear what is being said.
  • Keep your arms relaxed instead of crossed to show you are open to what is being said

Learning to listen for understanding is hard work and will take practice, but you can do it! Remember, the rewards will be having closer and more satisfying relationships.

Source: Adapted from Positive Coping Skills Toolbox
VA Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers (MIRECC)

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.