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A Psychologist Offers Tips For Better Listening

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This year, Texas Public Radio is promoting the idea of open, engaged listening as a way to change the tenor of our times. The campaign is called Dare To Listen, and you can learn more about it online at http://idaretolisten.org and “take the dare” while you’re there. Many people have already done so, and one of the first questions they ask us is “Well, what now? What do I do next?”

I posed that question and others to Dr. Ellen Shrouf, a psychologist and practicing clinician. She was one of the guests at our “Think Science” event about listening in August, 2016. Below is a transcription of our conversation, about how to be a better listener, and how body language can influence the process. [Edited for clarity and length.]

Nathan Cone: Let’s start with the idea of somebody who thinks, ‘I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty good listener.’ But what might cause them to question that assumption?

Dr. Ellen Shrouf: Well, one of the things that occurs to me first is that if other people aren’t telling you that you’re a good listener, you’re probably not! [laughs] Pay attention to whether people are telling you that or not. Another thing is if people kind of are drawn to you. Not just to be like attracted to you or something like that, but to want to spend tie with you and want to share the special things that are going on in their lives. The number one reason that that’s the case, that other people are drawn to you, is that you’re a good listener. People can tell if you’re not listening to them or if you are. Another thing is—[and] there’s a study on residents of long-term care, or seniors, and for some reason they studied what it took to engage them. And they found that those people decided within the first 90 seconds—though it’s probably less time than that—whether you’re really listening to them or not.

You mean the seniors decided?

The seniors decided within the first 90 seconds of sitting down to talk to a counselor whether that person was really listening to them or whether they weren’t. That’s more than just not talking. You know, more than saying ‘tell me what’s going on with you’ and then being quiet for a minute and a half. It’s got to be the body language that you have, whether you’re able to connect with that person on some sort of an emotional level. If you don’t have eye contact at all, then you’re not going to make the connection. It’s just not going to happen. There has to be at least a little bit of eye contact, and that has to be authentic. And it’s really very difficult to fake eye contact.

Another thing is whether you remember what they told you. It doesn’t have to be every single detail. If you can come back to somebody—across multiple conversations—and say ‘so how is your dog that was sick?’ or ‘you said that your mom was thinking about moving, are you still upset about that?’ People are so impressed that you remembered something that they said. If you weren’t listening pretty well, you’re certainly not going to remember that stuff.

So earlier you said that when people are attracted to you, that’s a good indication that you’re a good listener… I guess it’s because that they want to be heard, and that they want to know that somebody can not only hear them, but also kind of empathize with them.

Right, they want to know you care about them. It is possible in sort of a ‘con man’ kind of way to listen very closely to people with the intention of using that stuff to manipulate them. People figure that stuff out right away. Kids find that out immediately! [laughs] So it is possible to do the steps but not have the caring part. That’s a really important component of it, too.

So on the flip side of this, for somebody who knows, ‘I’m not a good listener,’ what is the number one thing they can do to improve their listening skills?

The first thing I would do really is to check in with yourself, and figure out what your intention is. There are many things that keep us from putting the effort into being a good listener. It could be because we feel like we’re so busy and scrambling all the time, that you just can’t stop and take a couple of seconds to connect with this person.

'If any kind of noise is coming out of your mouth, you're not really paying attention.'

Some people have told me ‘I don’t know how you do what you do because other people are so boring! How can you listen to them talk all day?’ If that’s your feeling, you’re going to have to do something about that! But if you have good intentions, and you really want to connect to people, but you find that it doesn’t seem to be working very well… if your intention is waiting for that person to stop speaking so that you can say what you want to say, then [again] you’re not listening.

If you’re interrupting the other person—and I find this happening more and more all the time—you’ll be talking to somebody on the phone or in person, and they’re interrupting you every little bit with ‘uh huh, uh huh,’ that’s a cue that you’re supposed to hurry up because now I want to say something. That’s not listening. So if any kind of noise is coming out of your mouth, you’re really not paying attention. So for some people, just to train themselves to be quiet first is probably a good step. And then they’re going to have an opportunity to think about ‘what is my intention here?’ I’m quiet and I see that her words are flowing past me, but am I really paying attention to those words? If the answer is ‘no’ then that’s where you need to work.

So the first step is to look at yourself, and to decide consciously, ‘yes, I need to open myself more.’ Before you even go through the physical act of listening.

Yeah, check-in with yourself and see where you’re at. Another thing is I find that a lot of people who are very good listeners are able to tell you somebody else that they know who is a really good listener. And they’ll say, ‘I wish I could be like that person,’ or ‘That person really makes me feel heard when I talk to them.’ You can kind of stop and think what are they doing that I don’t seem to be doing? Break down their style, and figure out if there are some of those things that you could emulate that would help, too.

The end result for better communication is better relationships more effective workplaces, yeah?

Yes. Well, any kind of relationship, in the workplace or at home, or on the road when you’re driving, anywhere, that’s always what the goal is.

It’s hard because we don’t have a visual cue with us right now, but describe for me a couple of the situations where our physical behavior influences the way we listen.

It’s not exactly the same size, but everybody has sort of a personal space around them. Imagine kind of bending your personal space towards the another person’s personal space. You’re not going to get to the point where you’re touching them necessarily, but think of that, because that’s like your energy bubble around you. And that’s a big part of connecting with that person.

Dr. Ellen Shrouf (left) demonstrates how mimicking subject behavior can create empathy.

Some time ago, we were doing a training on listening and practicing different techniques with each other. There was one person who just has a wonderful, warm-heart, and her intention was good, but she wasn’t paying attention to all the physical cues she was giving, and the subject matter they had gotten into during this practice was making the other person uncomfortable. And she was leaning back in her chair, and then she crossed her arms, and legs, and was really protecting herself from kind of an intrusion into her space. And out of totally good will and intentions, the person who was practicing [to be a trainer] was leaning forward, leaning forward, leaning forward, she was almost falling out of her chair! If she could have seen that, she would have realized ‘I am interjecting myself into that person’s space. I’m going too far.’

Watching other people when they’re talking is really interesting and helpful. You can do that in a restaurant, you can do that anyplace. Just watch what they’re physically doing. You can tell whether two people are communicating and connecting or if they’re not, or if one person is becoming uncomfortable or getting mad. You can see all that with your eyes.

So I can be a great listener, but what you’re saying is that if you get too far into my personal space, that can be a hindrance.

Right. Sometimes I call it listening with your eyes, to watch what the person’s reactions are to you. If things are going well, they’re going to maybe lean a little bit closer to you, or at least not lean away from you. They’re going to make eye contact with you. They [may] make some sort of motion that shows that they’re really pondering what you’re saying. You can tell from watching the person if they’re engaging with you or if somehow you are coming on too strong, or impeding things in that kind of way. You can use that physical realm to see how it’s going.

So if I’m the listener, or I’m speaking to somebody and they’re showing signs of negativity, they’re crossing their arms and legs, et cetera, what are the best things I can do to try and communicate with them?

One of the things is to slow down. Whatever you were saying, slow it down. You are overwhelming that person in some kind of way, so to talk more or faster, or louder or any of that kind of stuff, is just going to make it worse. So slow down so that you can kind of get more control over what you’re doing. And then this sounds kind of counterintuitive, but if you can mirror some of the body language that they’re doing, not every single bit of it necessarily, but some of it, then that person begins to feel like you’re connecting with where they are. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them about being angry about what you’ve said, or condoning it somehow, but you understand it.

It’s like ‘I feel ya.’


Do you have a story where you saw a change in somebody as a result of either working with them on listening skills, or a time when you heard from somebody about how listening changed them in some way?

The best example I can think of is a personal one. I went to visit a family member who had a terminal illness years ago, and in one of the conversations that we had—his whole family was there, but it was clearly us talking. We almost got to be in this little bubble, just the two of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but he knew in that way that people who are terminal know that this was the last time we would talk. And so he was telling me from the absolute bottom of his heart exactly how he felt about many really important things. And that bubble just increased. It was almost like an optical illusion that it was just us there, even though we were in a room full of people. I was watching and seeing what everybody else was doing, and everybody else was crying… but we weren’t. That’s a place where … when you’re too close, if it’s your spouse or your child, it’s too difficult for you to have that objectivity in that little bubble, and really allow that person to say whatever it is that they need to tell you. So that’s why that kind of conversation hadn’t necessarily happened with him and his closest family members, that he really wanted to get those things off his chest. I feel like lots of things happened from that. The communication between him and the family members changed, and got deeper in that period of time when it really needed to. I feel like it helped him ease out in a more clear and more peaceful way. And I was blown away by what he told me. So it changed everybody that was part of that conversation or watched it.

I think I know what you’re saying, because especially when you’re really close to somebody, you feel like there’s so much at stake with every word that’s going to be said and heard, that you’re worried about that conversation so much, to where when you have somebody else who’s slightly outside that bubble, you can open up a little bit.

One of the things that you can kind of take from that story is that if all of use communicated a little bit more like our time on earth was short, that could be a way that we could be more authentic and honest and open with each other, and have a lot of our communication be a lot more powerful.