by Jane Neall, M.A.

Have you ever gone to a party and come away feeling lonelier that when you arrived? Being with people is generally seen as a way to stave off loneliness, but if those people don’t know how to listen well, time together may highlight feelings of invisibility.

Recently a friend of mine attended a friend’s birthday party. My friend is a counselor, and the party was attended mostly by other counselors. She was amazed by the way she felt afterwards: “People actually asked me about me! And they listened when I talked, without interrupting and without continually talking about themselves, and they even asked me a couple of follow-up questions. It was so life-giving!”

My friend experienced being in a room with trained listeners. Professional counselors get formal training and practice in learning how to listen well, creating a safe place for people to unburden themselves of fears, anxieties, grief, pain, shame, secrets,sadness, anger and confusion. The more we listen, the more we learn and understand, and then behaviors begin to make sense.

Learning to listen well can be an important skill for all of us. Listening is a relationship-building skill; we all need to experience feeling really seen, heard, and understood by others. Humans have an innate need for connection, and we connect best to those who show genuine interest by intentional listening.

There are a few basics we can all begin using today to be better friends and spouses and parents and coworkers. These are three skills I have observed to be most helpful. First, be curious. Assume that the person you are talking with has a story, a story that is filled with experiences, talents, and adventures, and that you get the privilege of hearing their story. Ask questions, and then listen for the things that evoke the most powerful feelings, for those are generally the things most important to us. When a person shares something important, get more curious and ask a follow-up question, like “what was that like for you?”

Second, listen without interrupting. People tell their stories differently; some of us are more linear and sequential, and some of us are more all-over-the-map or stream-of-consciousness style. It’s important to allow the story to unfold; the details are not as important as hearing the meaning of the story. Interrupting is often not recognized as interrupting: someone cracks a joke, someone has to tell their similar experience, someone asks a detail that derails the flow of the storyteller. All of these are socially acceptable ways of interrupting, but they do not communicate sincere interest and listening with intent to understand, know, and honor the speaker.

Thirdly, practice the gift of being with. The human connection thrives on presence. We say things like “he was there for me,” or “I just need someone to be with me,” or “she doesn’t need to be alone during this time.” What we need most as humans is to know we are not alone. When a loved one dies, when there is terminal illness, there is nothing to “fix,” yet human loving, presence is the thing most needed. Learning to sit with another’s pain, anger, sadness without offering advice or solutions or problem-solving communicates love, care, and concern. When people tell their stories, maintain curiosity over advice, silence over interrupting, and presence over problem-solving, and watch relationships grow, deepen, and become more meaningful.