Meaningful dialogue is an elusive thing in our communities. Having a respectful conversation with someone about something on which we do not agree isn’t common. Yelling opinions over someone else or building a newsfeed that reinforces your worldview are common in a world with fewer and fewer great conversations. There is so much potential in dialogue, which is why this blog is exploring what makes for great conversations over the next few weeks – we started with a look at why conflict is a good thing. Then we looked at how to suspend judgement. This week we’re focusing on how to be a good listener so that you can understand where your conversational counterpart is coming from. Enjoy!

How to be a Good Listener

People often tell me I’m a “good listener”. I take this as a compliment, but also for granted. I mean, aren’t most people good at paying attention, the nice ones anyway? As part of the Potentiality’s series on Dialogue, I thought I’d take step back and examine what goes into making one a good listener and why it’s a prerequisite for healthy dialogue, whether at work or in your personal life.. Here are the top three things you need to do well to achieve “good listener” status.

Show that you’re listening

To set the stage for meaningful dialogue, it’s important to demonstrate your undivided attention and a lot of that is through the right kind of body language. That means no checking your cell phone during a conversation, glancing at your watch, tapping your foot or letting your eyes wander. Nothing screams a lack of interest or caring more than a distracted audience. It sounds funny, but even if you’re not wholly engaged by everything that you’re hearing, act like you are. Adding mini periodic interjections like “Right, oh really, and I see” also goes a long way.

Playback what you hear

Demonstrate your comprehension by paraphrasing what you’re hearing, especially when it comes to complex information being thrown at you. Whether it is complex instructions from your boss or a convoluted anecdote from a friend, it helps to jump in periodically with little phrases like, “So basically, if I’m hearing you correctly….” Or “Fair to say you’re feeling…” In other words, actively show that you’re listening. It provides reassurance that you’re not only keeping up with what you’re hearing, but processing it on all levels as well.

Relate, relate, relate

Being alert and receptive are crucial building blocks for creating the environment for productive, meaningful exchange, but are these behaviours enough to create meaningful mutual understanding, which is so crucial to dialogue? I would argue no. To do that you need to link what you’re hearing back to your own experience. All it really takes, according to the good people at Berkeley University is “the ability to sense other people emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”  Easier said than done, but getting to that empathetic place begins with suspending judgement and being present, abilities John has elaborated on recently.


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