Character & Soul, Self-Improvement

How To Be A Good Listener – Vanessa Tai

Being a good listener is a valuable skill to have, whether at work or in your interpersonal relationships. Very often, we are merely hearing, not listening. Vanessa Tai shares her experience. 

Without coming across as a braggart, I’ve actually been told by many different people that I’m a good listener. Each time somebody tells me that, I’m genuinely surprised because active listening is not something that I do consciously. It’s just that I feel honoured when people choose to open up to me, so the least I can do is to give them my full attention. After all, most of us are all too familiar with the signs of someone not really listening when we talk … and it stings.

To gauge whether you’re a good listener, answer the following questions. When somebody is talking to you, do you do any of the following:

Check your phone?

Think about what you’re going to say in response?

Try to immediately find a solution to the problem he or she is telling you about?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, then I’m afraid you’re not truly listening. According to the International Listening Association, we only retain about 50 percent of what we hear immediately after we hear it, and only another 20 percent beyond that. However, research has showed that when you stop what you’re doing to really focus on the person talking, you activate neurons in your brain and your body will start to hone in on the other person. This will help you retain more of whatever the other person is saying.

material world_listening

So how else can you be fully engaged when a person is talking to you? I thought back to some of my most meaningful interactions and identified a few key commonalities, which I hope will be useful for you.

Don’t Interrupt

This may seem commonsensical, but how many times have you tried opening up to someone only to have them cut you off with their own story or opinion? Not only does the person come off as rude, it tires you out quickly because you feel like you’re not getting through to him or her at all.

It’s normal to have thoughts flit through our mind when the person is talking, but we need to constantly remind ourselves to bring ourselves back to the present and focus on whatever the other person is saying. Also, look out for other non-verbal cues. Is the person’s voice getting quivery? Or is he or she toying nervously with the edge of the table? A person’s body language can tell you a lot about his or her state of mind as well.

Don’t Judge

When a person makes a decision to share some of their private thoughts with you, it’s something incredibly intimate and should be taken seriously. Even if you may not agree with whatever the person is telling you, bite your tongue and hold back on your judgment. It probably took them a lot of courage to open up to you. Don’t shut them down with your opinions on whether their decisions were right or wrong.

Also, respect the person’s right to keep certain details confidential. You may be dying to know a particular detail of the story, but if the person chooses not to disclose, don’t pry. It will just cause him or her to close themselves off once again.

Express Empathy

Very often, when people share with you a part of themselves, they’re not just looking for someone to lend a listening ear. It’s also a way of sussing out if what they’re experiencing is “normal”. However, in her article on how to comfort someone, Lili mentioned that, while well-intentioned, telling someone you understand exactly what they’re going through can come across as patronising and insensitive. That’s because everybody responds to grief differently so we can never completely understand what the other person is going through. That’s not to say you can’t express empathy though. Some of the ways could be to nod along reassuringly when he or she is talking or simply saying, “That must have been terrible for you. How are you feeling now?”

Another method, which I’ve only recently discovered, is touch.


Now, touch is a bit tricky because you’ll need to have a certain level of trust and comfort with the person. There’s a difference between your best friend telling you about her relationship problems and a co-worker confiding in you about a work issue. You’ll need to be able to read the situation and know what’s an appropriate amount of touch. Plus, some people are simply uncomfortable with physical contact, so you’ll have to take that into consideration as well.

However, the power of touch is undeniable. A growing number of studies have shown that even a momentary touch can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions. In fact, it can sometimes convey an emotion more quickly and accurately than words. Some of the “safer” methods of touch that I employ (usually sub-consciously) are reassuring pats on the shoulder or arm, or even a quick squeeze of the person’s hands. To me, it’s just a gentler, less invasive way of saying, “Hey, I’m here for you.” If you share a close relationship with the person though, a giant bear hug at the end of the conversation is always comforting and lets the person know you have their back.

I know, all this sounds complicated but it’s really not. All you need to remember is, when a person chooses to open up to you, it’s something precious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As a society, we’re becoming increasingly cloistered; hiding behind screen names and social media personas. So when a person chooses to confide in you, isn’t it natural for us to return the honour by giving them our full attention?

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.