A therapist isn’t the only person who needs to know how to be a good listener — you too could benefit from learning to be more attentive. If you’re constantly interjecting and interrupting (we’re totally guilty of this!), even by accident, you’re depriving your conversation partner the opportunity to say everything he or she wants to, and you’re denying yourself the opportunity to craft a thoughtful response.
Kenneth E. Miller, PhD, a psychologist and writer, penned an essay for Psychology Today about a genius tip he learned for being a better listener. Miller first discovered the technique in a book by Richard Carlson called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life ($13.28, Amazon). Carlson called it “Breathe before you speak,” and it’s particularly useful for those who want to know how to become better listeners — but beware: It’s deceptively difficult to follow.
“Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath,” Carlson wrote. “Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out ‘I am trying a new technique for better listening!’ No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Miller required his students to try this technique with their classmates, and many of them were surprised by how hard the assignment turned out to be. Anxiety-inducing silences during a conversation can feel awkward, so we immediately rush to fill it — but that’s not always what we should be doing. Instead, give your partner the opportunity to keep going, to sit with their thoughts for a bit and reflect on them. That small pause will also give you the time to really take in what it is they’re saying so you can consider a good, appropriate response.
If you’re able to reply with an insightful comment or a probing question, the person you’re conversing with is more likely to feel like you’re truly listening to them — because you are! It turns out the secret to becoming a good listener isn’t really that secret, after all.