A former colleague and friend once told me, ‘Daniel, nobody really wants advice.’ What he meant was, when we’re in a fix, all we want is for somebody to approve of what we already think.
But when somebody tells you their problem, it’s natural to want to give them a solution. Resist that urge. It’s much more powerful, and empowering, to simply listen and let them speak.
Here’s how you can listen perfectly.
Close your laptop. Turn the telly off. You might not be able to block out every distraction, but you can take care of the obvious. Suggest moving to a quiet place if you’re somewhere busy.
When was the last time you actually turned your phone off? What a generous gesture it would be in 2018. Like hiring a plane to write, ‘I CARE ABOUT U’ across the sky.
If you’re face-to-face with somebody, take the phrase literally. Turn yourself towards them and keep regular eye contact. Nod from time to time, and don’t cross your arms.
Long, unbroken eye contact can feel quite intense - for both of you. It’s fine to look away briefly, and to do this frequently. But stay focused on your person and keep listening.
Sometimes the hardest thing about listening is remembering what you’re being told. But we make it hard on ourselves, because we’re busy forming opinions or thinking about our reply.
Go over what they’re saying in your head. This will help it stick, stop you getting distracted by your own thoughts on the situation, and keep you focused entirely on their feelings.
Just like switching off your tech and moving to a private place, paraphrasing what somebody’s said is a powerful way to show you’re really with them.
When there’s a natural pause, try a verbal summary of the facts and feelings they’ve expressed. It can encourage them to keep speaking and reflect on what they’ve said so far.
When we use the phrase ‘opening up’, what we really mean is ‘making ourselves vulnerable’. Talking to somebody, even somebody who cares about you, can be a hard thing to do.
So if your person starts to ‘close up’, ask them if they can expand on what they’ve just said. Ask ‘How did that make you feel?’, or ‘Can you tell me a bit more about that?
The hardest thing about listening well is remembering it isn’t a conversation, or not an equal one at least. Your part is important, but it’s mostly silent - like Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (just 169 words in an hour and 45 minutes).
If you feel like you need to show you’re listening, nod and mm-hmm every now and then. Otherwise, let your body language show that you’re really present.
‘I know exactly what you mean. Once, I was… and what worked for me was...’ We’ve all done this. We’re just trying to be helpful but what we’re actually saying is, ‘I’m going to talk about myself now.’
It’s not your job to find the answers. Unless they ask you to, try not to talk about your own experiences. If you think it’s really necessary to offer advice, ask permission first. ‘Would you like to hear what I would do?’
Because you’re a nice person, you’ll want to feel like you’ve helped your friend. And you have, by listening. But if it feels right, there is something else you could try.
The GROW model is a tried-and-tested coaching technique. It works by encouraging somebody to list the things they could do to improve their situation, and then commit to giving one of them a try. Find out how to coach somebody using the GROW model.