You may have heard us say that if you have a following, you are a leader. That means whether you are a mom, a pastor, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you are a leader, and how you lead matters. Listening is one key strategy that helps leaders live with integrity. Many people assume they are great listeners. It’s a skill set we know is important, yet fail to practice. Despite optimistic beliefs about our own listening skills, it’s true that we often find ourselves lacking in the practical application of it during times we need it most: comforting a hurting child, addressing conflict in marriage, working out a misunderstanding with a friend, or navigating personality differences at work.

Listening is a dying art form. Part of this comes from the fact that in this digital age, people have become consumed with having a voice. Just scroll through this past hour’s feed and you’ll find plenty of people with opinions to share. We also have access, like never before, to multiple forums where we can share our voices: Instagram, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Snapchat, online groups, not to mention the audiences we actually encounter in person like our families, co-workers, neighbors, the clerk at the grocery check out, etc.. In reality, there are so many audiences and high frequencies constantly bombarding us that no one is really listening anymore.

All the chatter and discourse has become our normal background noise. There’s so much of it that it is difficult to pay attention to any of it. This buzz noise adds to our anxiety. Rising stress levels and a heightened awareness of every single thing going on in the world can leave us with a strong desire to check out (Netflix, please!). Being a good listener does not happen when we are living in “coast” mode, but rather with intentional effort and practice. 

Good listening is often replaced by one of the following common responses that can de-rail conversations and relationships. As you read through them, honestly assess which of these familiar responses you lean toward. If you can name it, you can change it. 

The Busy Bee Response: Always moving, this respondent packs her schedule to the brim, hardly having time to look anyone in the eye. Her body language communicates, “Hurry it up! I’m running late.” This person may want to be a good listener, but rarely slows down enough to engage others in a way that makes them want to share what is really going on. The speaker often feels rushed by this response and is left with the assumption they are not a priority to this responder. 

The Narcissist Response (not true NPD, but a type of listening response): This respondent will find herself relating every story she hears to something in her own life —“I can relate,” or “That reminds me of….” She often has an answer to her own question before the speaker gets a turn to share. While the heart of this respondent may desire to create connection, this type of response actually sabotages the speaker’s experience of feeling heard at all. 

The Tough as Nails Response: This respondent reminds the speaker that everything will be “fine,” regardless of the circumstances. You might hear this person say things like, “There are worse things happening in the world,” or “You’ll get through this and be stronger for it.” Author and researcher Brené Brown warns about these kind of “at least” responses. Though they might state truth, they feel dismissive when a person is baring her soul. The heart of this kind of listener is usually trying to offer hope or encouragement, but instead, she is really saying, “Suck it up!” Sometimes, this kind of response is simply from a hardened heart – one suffering from compassion fatigue or unresolved trauma; it can also be a tell-tale sign of leader burnout. 

The Honey Response: This response appears to be loving and compassionate, yet when someone is sharing thoughts, opinions, or feelings, this kind of response actually feels like nails on a chalk board. A gentle, “It’s going to be okay,” is not helpful when the brain is on fire and the speaker just wants someone to validate that, “IT IS NOT OKAY!” or whatever the speaker is truly feeling in the moment. This respondent has a hard time sticking with a person’s struggle; heaviness and pain are not feelings she handles well. In an attempt to keep it light, she can end up sharing a trite response at the most inopportune time.

The Shaming Response: This respondent is quick to use words like “should,” or “supposed to.” She points out where the speaker failed, and how she likely caused her own situation. There is not a lot of good intention with this kind of response. It comes from a spirit of judgement and a critical eye toward anything that looks or feels different than the respondent has experienced. It may even be accompanied by an actual (or perhaps phantom) wagging finger pointing directly at the speaker’s nose. To share vulnerably with this listener might leave a person feeling naked and ashamed — not to mention flat out wrong. This is a strong contrast to the way God intended us all to feel: “naked and unashamed.”

The Fix-It Response: This respondent will listen with great intent and is ready to offer quick, clever wisdom: “Next time you could try…?” Though this respondent might be right, listening is not actually about coming up with the right answer. Listening is about coming up with the right response. The first version makes the respondent feel good. After all, she fixed the problem, didn’t she? The second version makes the speaker feel good. Notice the difference. In the end, the speaker may eventually find herself at the same conclusion, but with a deeper resolve to focus her movement in a positive direction because she came up with the idea on her own.

The Silent and Empty Response: This respondent appears to be an amazing listener, but in reality, there is no one home. She is lost in her own thoughts, feelings, and responses, either thinking about her own day or having a conversation with the speaker inside her head. Though these silent nodders appear to be the best listeners, the lack of staying present with the speaker can leave the speaker feeling alone and lost in the end. 

I personally lean toward the Fix-It Response or Tough as Nails Response, when left to my own ways. We often learn these responses in our homes growing up, and then integrate them in unique ways depending on our wirings. Ultimately, the cure is practice, practice, practice. 

For over fifteen years, Jeff and I have taught the art of listening. Regardless of your nature, a good listener has to go against the grain and intentionally work those listening ‘muscles’ that might rather nap. The first part of doing this is finding a meaningful motivator. Similar to military units who practice regimens and drills to prepare for battle, finding opportunities to listen in the small moments — the ones that don’t seem all that important — can help a person be ready when it really counts. Need helping finding motivation? Consider this. When you listen effectively and consistently, you will experience some pretty amazing side effects: Brains heal. Trauma responses lessen. Broken relationships repair.  Hearts soften. Motivation rises. Productivity increases. Trust develops. Intimacy is born. 

Once you understand WHY you want to be good listener (your motivation), you must get comfortable with the idea of trying something new that might not feel natural or comfortable. Be willing to fail as you find new ways of hearing people around you. Despite knowing this and teaching this to others, Jeff and I still fumble in our day to day lives. Listening is a lot like exercising a muscle. If you don’t use it, it slowly weakens and atrophies, sometimes causing ripple effects of subsequent injuries. Thankfully, practicing effective listening can occur anytime. Every conversation can help you fine tune this skill. 

Like exercise, it’s wise to start small. Establish these ground rules for good listening before anything else: 

  1. Don’t interrupt. (This is a good reminder for me!)             
  2. Always ask if “now is a good time to talk.” If the listener is not ready to listen well, they can offer an alternative time. 

Next, work on building the following three tools into daily conversation so that they are regular habits when you really need to hit the mark. Change comes with a slow and steady drip. 

Step #1: Mirroring

Mirroring shows you care. Let the speaker share her thoughts and then simply repeat back what you hear being said. Reframing what is said works, too, so long as you still keep the speaker’s intent. The point is to make sure you are gathering accurate content before you draw any conclusions, take action steps, ask questions, or call it done. Once the speaker has said what they need to say, you get to ask a question or two. These questions are not interrogative in nature, but rather help you better understand by clarifying information. Try using the words, “Help me understand…,” when asking a question. 

Step #2: Validating

Validating is putting someone else’s glasses on so that you can see the situation from the speaker’s perspective. Maybe it means taking on the perspective of a 10 year old in the middle of class who is called out by the teacher for missing a problem on the math test. Or, consider what the vantage point might be for a mom of three children under 5, after a day of trying to feed, clean, change diapers, discipline, teach and entertain. When you really master validation, you can move beyond your own perspective and see the world from another’s landing page. This does not mean you agree with another’s perspective or logic, or even with how the speaker responded to their reality; it does mean you are acting maturely by entering into another’s world without judgement, contempt, or the need to minimize the experience. 

Step #3: Empathy

Empathy is the gold in any relationship, but is rarely achieved. This occurs only when we move beyond understanding the context cognitively and use feeling words to shift into the heart of the matter. “It sounds like you are angry because I have not been home very much this week and you really needed me around to help. You also feel exhausted.” Feeling words might come easy to some, but when a person does not grow up in a safe, expressive home, or if her environment equates feelings with weakness, the vocabulary and ability to find appropriate feeling words might be limited. It is helpful to have a list in front of you. (Go ahead and print one off. Put it on your refrigerator or somewhere it will be readily available when you need it.) If you can truly empathize with someone as a listener, a person’s brain literally moves away from fight, flight or freeze mode. In a matter of minutes, calming hormones flood the brain and body, bringing with the body to greater peace and stability. 

Neuroscience and trauma research tell us that empathy heals. Empathy can be the difference between feeling like you are drowning in the deep end of a pool, barely able to hold a breath, or suddenly finding yourself in shallow waters where you can stand with safety and stability beneath your feet. That’s why therapists spend most of the time empathizing with clients and teaching others to do the same. If we could experience more empathy at home, at church, at work, or out and about in our daily lives, we just might find that deeper human connection we all need and were designed for. 

Jeff and I give each other a high-five every time we make it through our weekly business meetings IF we listen well to one another. We might even chest bump if we successfully listen to the other during dreaded budget talks. We are still in this with you as we all try to shrink the gap between what we say — “I love my husband and want to be slow to speak, quick to listen,” — and what we actually live out when no one is watching. Using these three steps: MIRRORING, VALIDATING, AND EMPATHIZING, we move closer to healing and closer to each other. It might sound like, “I hear you saying…. I can see how you got there because…. I can see you feel.…” These are divine moments when our theology matches our reality. It is in these moments that our integrity gap shrinks and our relationship builds deeper trust.

It starts with good listening. Our pre-disposed wiring for authentic face-to-face human connection is real, despite the allure of quick and easy online interactions. With deeper human connection, we find ourselves able to handle the stresses of life more successfully. Being heard re-wires the brain, creates safer systems, and heals relationships. The inability to be known by another only adds to the intense isolation, fear, and trauma that is increasing all around us. The world is desperate for leaders who listen well and are impacting the systems beneath them one conversation at a time. 

Written by Terra Mattson, MA LMFT, LPC
Co-founder of Living Wholehearted and Courageous Girls

Clinical Director, Author & Speaker 

Principles adapted from Terra’s book Courageous, Living Wholehearted Communication Workshops, and Imago Therapy by Dr. Harville Hendrix.