Introduction to listening

When we are growing up, nobody teaches us how to listen!  This is a fundamental of life – and the next few blogs will show you how …

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 9) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Silence is not enough

As powerful as silent listening is, there are many occasions when we could be more active in our listening. Even simple, factual communications can be coloured by underlying emotion,  and to receive the full communication it  is useful to listen not only to the words, but to acknowledge the feelings that are being expressed.  Upset people don’t send clear messages, there are usually too many unpleasant and strong feelings around.

Letting people know you are aware of their feelings not only clarifies communication, but also helps both parties acknowledge and deal with relevant issues. Just giving a name to what you think they feel can be enough.

Open ended questions

Open ended questions leave the person you are listening to with the responsibility as to what they tell you and how the conversation goes.  Unlike a closed question they do not suggest an answer, for example:  “What aspect of your job bothers you?”  rather than  “Are you unhappy with your salary?”

Open ended questions fall into two categories:

1. Door openers, to start the ball rolling

It is not easy for some people to express the way they feel, especially if they perceive their feelings as    negative.  At these times it is useful to encourage them to start talking with open ended questions like:

“Do you want to talk about anything?”   “You seem a bit out of sorts, do you want to tell me about it?”

2. Questions to keep the flow going

Though pauses and silence is valuable in a conversation, sometimes it is useful keep people going with more open ended questions:

“Is there anything more?”  “Is there something else worrying you?”


Learning from our successes and mistakes

Children learning to walk try different ways of getting up and launching themselves on two feet, each time learning from what they do to be more successful at the next attempt. Unlike adults, they do not beat themselves up for making mistakes, but learn from experience, responding to the “feedback” that the experience offers them. We can learn to do likewise, considering what we do and the effect it has on us and others and using the feedback from other people and the environment to change things the next time.

What might get in the way of listening

Learning to really listen isn’t always easy. There are all sorts of patterns that can get in the way. However much we may want to be helpful in these new ways, we may be stuck in old patterns of trying to sort things out for others, and solve their problems for them.

We may also find that feelings expressed to us trigger us into our own, often unfruitful ways of responding, and the situation becomes about us, rather than about the other person, or the problem to be solved.

Obviously we want to do it all as well as we can, and it will take time to replace the old patterns of behaving with new ones.  Only doing it and leaning from the feedback we get both at work and at home can  speed the process up.


Taking listening a step further

Sometimes silence and the best attentive behaviour in the world are not quite enough. Some situations need something more. At these times we can use very simple responses so that the speaker knows we are still with them.  In this way we encourage the speaker to continue talking and don’t interrupt the flow.

Examples: –    … mm-hum …      go on …    yes  …         really?   …         oh    …     and?…

Repeating key words from the speaker’s last sentence may also be used as a way of encouraging someone to continue. For example:

  • Speaker:        `I don’t know what’s happening, I just feel stuck.’
  • Listener:         `Stuck.’

The listener’s body language, tone of voice and facial expression can also act as encouragement.

The aim of these responses is not to interrupt the person or agree or disagree with them but just to let them know that you hear what they are saying.

Of course, we have all experienced inattentive listeners who repeat the same words and sounds, trying to mask that they are not listening at all and maybe not even caring about what we are saying. So make sure you are feeling accepting and understanding when you use these simple forms of acknowledgement.

Remaining silent is a very powerful way of giving people the space and safety to talk through their fears, worries, upsets and difficulties. If we can give our attention in a caring, accepting and supportive way, then we are halfway towards being as helpful as it is possible to be.



In wanting to do more to help it is easy to forget the value of trusting the other person to be able to work through whatever they need to deal with, with our help. We leave the responsibility for dealing with feelings, solving the problem, or calming the worry with the person who is experiencing the feeling, problem or worry.

In this way, not only do we play our part in making sure that they do what is best for them, we are also helping them to learn how to do it in the future when we are not around to help. Particularly with our children this is a very important step we can help them take in their growing up – but it applies equally in any situation where a person is learning a new skill or assuming a new set of responsibilities.

As we said in the introduction, people who are upset do not send straight messages…


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

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