Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

8 tips on how to be a good listener

Empathy is at the heart of ensuring people feel heard

Listening has become a mostly passive activity. Radio qualifies as a one-way conversation, and that podcast will be there next week regardless of whether you leave a comment. There’s virtually no consequence in consuming content without consideration.

With people it’s different. When someone speaks, particularly about personal matters, they want us to show that we’ve really heard them.

“It's an active process that you have to work at,” says Brett Zawadiuk.

As a NAIT staff member and an instructor in the polytechnic’s Mental Health First Aid program, Zawadiuk offers guidance for those who might to encounter others with emerging mental health issues, be it an anxious student or a stressed colleague.

It’s not always a comfortable process, says Zawadiuk, who teaches listening skills in his classes. Maybe we worry we won’t be able to relate, or that we'll say the wrong thing, or won’t be able to provide proper support. Zawadiuk believes those worries can be overcome.

“I think we all have the ability to help each other,” he says. “Sometimes you don't realize how simple the tools are.” Here are eight tips on listening like it matters, when it matters most.

1. You don’t need to relate

Being empathetic – foundational to good listening – doesn’t mean you need to fully relate to someone’s experience, or that you even should. Saying, “I’ve been through this, too; you’ll be fine,” likely won’t help much, says Zawadiuk, as it can seem dismissive.

Saying, “I’ve been through this, too; you’ll be fine,” likely won’t help much.

“It's [a matter of] taking yourself out of that scenario, removing judgement, and saying, ‘I need to hear what this person's trying to say because whatever they've experienced is unique to them.’” Empathy and connection arise from acknowledging that uniqueness and from the effort to understand how a person feels.

2. Listen with your eyes

impact of body language on listeningEmotional cues come from more than words, says Zawadiuk. Watch for crossed arms, avoidance of eye contact and other body language to help guide your responses.

That means meeting in person whenever possible, Zawadiuk adds. Text, email, even phone calls don’t offer the same opportunity when discussing challenging subjects.

3. Employ the silence

Participating in a conversation means more than just waiting for your turn to talk. Silence may make people uncomfortable, but it’s valuable (if not golden). “That space is OK because it shows that you're thinking about [what’s been said],” says Zawadiuk.

“Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about how people listen with the intent to respond and not with the intent to understand,” he adds.

“When you listen to understand, you're not immediately jumping in to talk.”

“When you listen to understand, you're not immediately jumping in to talk.”

4. Don’t understand something? Just say so

man struggles to understand

“If I just heard some information and I'm trying to wrap my head around it, one of my favourite things to say is, ‘Help me understand blank.’”

This not only brings clarity, says Zawadiuk, it creates connection, because it’s an honest and authentic response that can bolster trust.

“It's opening up that pathway and the conversation can then roll out more from there.”

If you say something you regret

Own it. “If you say something that feels stupid or unkind, that's OK. Just acknowledge it,” says Zawadiuk. “Apologize.”

That may not always be easy, but it’s worth it.

“Acknowledging your imperfections and having that vulnerability with the other person further drives connection. You're creating that relationship because they're seeing that you are human, too.”

5. Once you do understand, summarize

Sure you’ve got it? Check.

“Taking that time to try to summarize and really create that shared understanding is important. If you're hearing a lot of information at once, it might be tough to capture.”

6. Don’t try to solve the problem

It’s natural to want to try to fix the problems of people we care about, says Zawadiuk. But resist the urge.

“What we forget is that, just because a solution worked for me doesn't mean it will work for you.”

In fact, pushing a solution can lead to undesirable outcomes, he adds. It may make a person feel as if they’ve not been heard, and that you’re simply trying to end the conversation. Or, they’ll try it and it won’t work, which may make them less likely to raise the concern again with you or others.

7. Check in, follow up

knocking on door

Leave your door open after the conversation, but also knock on the other person’s. If they opened up in the first place, they likely won’t mind you asking how things are.

Leave your door open, but also knock on the other person’s.

Also, check that they’re exploring other possibilities for support, says Zawadiuk, whether it’s a church, peer groups, athletics or professional counselling.

“Try to set up those different avenues so that you're not that person's only safety net.”

8. Whatever you do, always strive for connection

When done properly, listening to people is far from a passive activity. Patience and questions intended to gain an understanding can lead a person to “find the solution that works for them,” says Zawadiuk.

“A piece of that is creating that trust and relationship so that they feel support, and maybe a little less lonely, less isolated, and gain hope and optimism that maybe there is something out there that can help them.”


Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.