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How to Be a Better Listener

Listening Vs Obeying

Will You Please Just Listen?

Letter from Norway

Listen, Listen, by Keith Pearson

An Example of a Great Listener

Listening, Life and Death

- Tina and Megan Meier

- Buenos Aires Suicide

- Carol Gotbaum

Core Topics

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening

Free EQ for Everybody Book


It has been said that 90% of "behavior problems" come from young people wanting adults to listen to them. One study reported that the number one request from suicidal teenagers was for adults to listen to them. The medical power of listening has also been proven by various studies.

We all feel better when we feel listened to. And we feel even better when we feel understood. In order to be understood, we must be listened to. Often it is more important to us to feel heard than to actually get what we said we wanted. On the other hand, feeling ignored and misunderstood is literally painful whether we are six or sixty.

As with other emotional needs, the need to be heard is a survival need. We are all interdependent. In other words, many of our basic needs depend on the cooperation of others. But first we must know and communicate our needs. For example, if we are a passenger in a car and we feel unsafe, we must communicate our feelings. If the driver ignores us, our lives may literally be threatened. If we are not heard, we cannot communicate our needs. It is understandable, then, that we feel frustrated or worse when we do not feel heard.

By developing our own listening skills, we can model them to others. They in turn will become better listeners and we will feel heard, understood and respected.

Suggestions on How to Be a Better Listener

  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Attempt to identify the underlying feelings

"It sounds like you felt disappointed..."
"How did you feel when ... "

  • Listen with empathy; focus on feelings
  • Show understanding and connection

    "I understand." "I see." "I know how you feel." "I have felt that way, too."

  • Clarify and paraphrase, particularly the feelings

    "So, you really felt insulted, is that it?"
    "So you felt ___ and ____?"

  • Do not judge with your body language or facial expressions
  • Help the person focus while showing interest:

"What bothered you the most about it?"
"What did you like the most?"

  • Don't show disapproval
  • Don't spend your time "preparing your response"
  • Don't interrupt, evaluate or jump to conclusions
  • Use eye contact
  • Show interest by nodding, "uh huh's", etc.
  • Allow long pauses before asking questions; be patient
  • Give your full attention; stop other tasks
  • Avoid: "Scene stealing," Advising, Interrogating, "Sending solutions," Correcting, Debating

Remember that listening to either a child or adult helps him feel heard, understood, important, valued, respected and cared about. And remember that the best listeners focus on feelings, not "facts".

Listening vs. Obeying
S. Hein May 2003


This week I heard several people talking about people who "won't listen." In all three cases it was someone who was talking about someone younger.

First it was a university psychology student talking about her younger brother. She said he is "ADHD." I asked her what she meant by that and she said, "He won't listen." When I asked her to explain further she said, "You tell him not to do something and he does it anyhow." In a playfully provoking tone, I asked her why she thought he should listen to her.

She smiled defensively and looked away as she realized she didn't have a good answer. The best she could come up with was, "Because I am his older sister." I said, "So...?" She laughed, and I left it at that. I wonder, though, what she would say had we continued the conversation. I am really curious why different people think others "should" listen to them.

Two days later I had a conversation with someone whose parents are from Samoa. She told me that in the Samoan culture you are taught to "respect your elders." She said at the dinner table young people usually don't talk; only the "elders" talk, and young people are expected to listen quietly without making a contribution to the discussion.

She said she was never asked her opinion about anything and her feelings were not considered important to her parents. She said it is a primitive society. She also said women are not treated with respect there, and for those reasons she would not want to raise her children in a place like that. 

Talking to her helped me understand why some people think others "should" listen to them. It seems this is largely just custom, culture and tradition. I wonder what a society would be like if it were the cultural norm to listen to those people we commonly call children, teenagers and students... and then take what they say seriously.

Later in the week, I saw how a primary school teacher used the word "listen." At the time, she was frustrated because she was getting behind in her lesson plan. She was also starting to feel out of control. She had just come back from gathering up two boys who did not return to the class after the lunch break bell had been rung.

She was nearly dragging one, Abdul, by the hand, while lecturing to him most of the way. When she got back to class she tried to get 18 people, ages 5 and 6, to sit on the floor -- where she wanted and how she wanted -- in preparation for her reading a story about a father taking his son fishing. Her attempts at controlling these 18 people took her a lot of time and she was getting more and more stressed and further behind in her lesson plan.

As she read she would stop frequently to give orders to the people on the floor. She would say things like, "Put that down." "Sit up properly." "Eyes up here." "Move over here by me." "Go sit in the back by yourself." "Don't walk through the group! I wanted you to walk around the outside!"

After directing several such instructions towards Abdul, she snapped at him, saying, "Abdul, Stand up! You are not listening to me! The next time I have to speak to you, you are going to be sent out of the room. Do you understand that? Look at me! Do you understand that?!"

I think what she actually meant was that he was not obeying her by sitting quietly and motionless, with his eyes on her while she tried to read the story. I could understand why Abdul was not looking at her because the story was not interesting to him. She tried to make it more interesting by exaggerating her voice as she read, but I think this might have only made it more obvious to him and others that the story was not very important or relevant to them in its own right. As I looked around the room in fact, I would say only about half the people were interested in the story, which explained why so many of them were looking elsewhere and finding other things to do.

During the story telling, I noticed something else. There was a boy named Jesse who the teacher said was "ADHD." The way she said it was as if she were branding him for life as a problem child. I paid close attention to Jesse and we immediately connected. I saw myself in him and have little doubt that if I were in school now I would also be labeled as "ADHD".

One of the most fascinating things I witnessed while watching Jesse was when the teacher asked, "Have any of you gone fishing with your fathers?" At this point Jesse looked like he was not paying any attention at all. He had been crawling all around, not keeping his eyes on the teacher for more than a few seconds after each time she commanded him to. But when she asked the question, "Have any of you gone fishing with your fathers?", Jesse was one of the first, if not the very first, to shoot up his hand and say, "I have."

His ability to listen when not appearing to -- what I might call his multi-tasking ability -- was shown again when she was handing out writing books. At this point Jesse was literally crawling under one of the tables, but as soon as he heard his name called, he came out and went to get his book.

Another example of how someone used the word "listen" was just last night. I was talking to an 18 year old student from Holland. She was considering studying psychology. She said there are some students who "won't listen" to the teachers when the teacher tells them to be quiet.

All of this made me realize there is a difference between listening and obeying. As with the difference between respect and obedience, however, one is often used mistakenly in place of the other. I suppose this is because people like teachers and psychology students don't want to admit that they really just want someone to obey them. I may be guilty of this myself, so I will try to be more aware of this important distinction!

As "adults" we tend to use the word "listen" differently depending on the situation. When we truly want someone to listen to us, rather than obey us -- and this person is someone we consider an equal, a friend or someone we are seeking help from -- we often mean we want them to listen in a caring way without judging us or telling us what to do, much as is described in this site.

This strikes me as very ironic. A person in a position of authority often tells other people what to do. But at the same time, if they really want someone to listen to them, they probably don't want that person to tell them what to do! They just want to be listened to. Beyond this they probably would like to feel understood and empathized with. We don't usually feel any of these things when someone expects us to just obey them.

I can just imagine a police chief, an army officer or a high school director going into a therapist and the therapist saying, "I told you what to do last week, didn't I? And you didn't listen, did you? Look at me when I am talking to you!"

The client then says "But I am paying you to listen to me, not to tell me what to do! No one ever listens to me, even when I pay them to!!"

Will you please just listen?

Will you please just listen?

When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you have not done what I have asked.

When I ask you to listen and you start telling me why I shouldn't feel the way I do, you are invalidating my feelings.

When I ask you to listen and you start trying to solve my problem, I feel underestimated and disempowered.

When I ask you to listen and you start telling me what I need to do I feel offended, pressured and controlled.

When I ask you to listen, it does not mean I am helpless. I may be faltering, depressed or discouraged, but I am not helpless.

When I ask you to listen and you do things which I can and need to do for myself, you hurt my self-esteem.

But when you accept the way I feel, then I don't need to spend time and energy trying to defend myself or convince you, and I can focus on figuring out why I feel the way I feel and what to do about it.

And when I do that, I don't need advice, just support, trust and encouragement.

Please remember that what you think are "irrational feelings" always make sense if you take time to listen and understand me.

Quote by Keith Pearson

Listen, LISTEN

When you listen you affirm me
but your listening must be real
sensitive and serious
not looking busily around
not with a worried or distracted frown
not preparing what you are going to say next
but giving me your full attention.

You are telling me I am a person of value
important and worth listening to
one with whom you will share yourself.

I have ideas to share
feelings which I too often keep to myself
deep questions which struggle inside me for answers
I have hopes only tentatively acknowledged
which are not easy to share
and pain and guilt and fear I try to stifle

These are sensitive areas and a real part of me
but it takes courage to confide in another

I need to listen too if we are to become close
How can I tell you I understand?
I can show interest with my eyes or an occasional word
attuned to pick up not only spoken words
but also the glimmer of a smile
a look of pain, the hesitation, the struggle
which may suggest something as yet too deep for words

So let us take time together
respecting the others' freedom
encouraging without hurrying
understanding that some things may never be brought to light
but others may emerge if given time

Each through this listening, enriches the other
with the priceless gift of intimacy.


by Keith Pearson, Melbourne, Australia

Letter about Listening from Norway

Hi Steve,

Thank you for writing all the articles you have been writing. I never realized how bad a listener I really was before coming across your site. It is easy to listen to people when they are happy, but I can count numerous times where I have just said to people.. Cheer up, look the sky is still blue... Instead of really listening to them. Or how many times I have been finding solutions instead of listening...

Your site made me really find a lot of times in my past where I really did these things. Now I try to focus on how not to do that anymore.

Keep up the good work... The world really need this, it would be a much better place if we all would really listen and try to understand each other.

Just last night I was about to leave from a girl's place and I said on the way out : "I feel sad" (This girl I like, but she is not interested in a relationship with me.). And the only reply I got was: "Don't be sad".

After I felt even worse, because she didn't accept my feelings. I just wanted to let you know I read your article "Thanks for listening" and I understand. Hope to see a lot more articles from you:

Best regards
Oslo Norway

Nov 2007

An Example of a Great Listener

Here is what one member of our teen chat support group said about another member:

...whenever i am upset, i write to jen. she's been the best. i dont know how she can resist giving me advice, but i can't remember even once when she gave me advice. and neither can i remember even one time when i felt judged by her. that's why i feel so free and safe talking to her.

Something else which makes her a good listener: she sends me lots of hugs. And sends hugs back when I send her one.

Listening, Life and Death - Tina and Megan Meier

Can the ability to listen make the difference between life and death?

Consider this true story: Tina Meier's daughter, Megan, was extremely upset one day. She tried to get help from her mother. But Tina felt a greater need to tell Megan what to do than did to just listen.

As I watch this video I wonder whether it might have saved Megan's life if the mother had just listened.

Notice also that the mother confuses "listening" with "obeying" when she says, "I was upset that she didn't listen to me and sign off when I told her to."

Listening, Life and Death - Buenos Aires Suicide Story

Can the ability to listen make the difference between life and death? I have asked this question in another article about the suicide of a young girl in the USA, but I want to repeat the question here and tell a true story from my own life.

Once while living in Buenos Aires I started a friendship with someone. One day as we were walking he told me how one of his best friends had killed himself ten minutes after talking to him. At the time I didn't make any connection in my mind between the two events.

About one week later, though, I was feeling very discouraged about something and I went to talk to my new friend. After I had talked for just a few minutes, he started doing all the talking and I just fell silent. I realized I felt lectured to and not understood. I also felt somewhat judged. I realized I was feeling worse so I stopped our conversation and quickly made an excuse to leave.

As I was walking home I suddenly had a chilling thought:

This was the same person who had told me his best friend had killed himself ten minutes after talking to him.

My body literally reacted to that thought. I felt a heaviness grip me and consume me. It was as if I had opened the door to a secret room and saw something I was not supposed to see and which I could never tell anyone.

A burning question dominated my mind:

Would his friend still be alive today had he been a better listener?

Of course I could not possibly tell my friend of the connection I made between me feeling worse after talking to him and what he had told me about his friend's suicide. It seemed too cruel and unfair, since there would be nothing he could do now.

I wondered then, "Even if, as I sadly suspect, he might have been able to save his friend's life by being a better listener, wouldn't I be doing more harm than good at this point to even bring up the subject?" I knew my friend would instantly feel guilty and probably defensive. It could, possibly destroy our relationship. So I decided to say nothing. Yet at the same time I felt and still feel, years later, a degree of guilt for not helping him see that he needs to improve his skills in this critically important area of his life.

I am no longer in touch with that friend but this story is a reminder that it is my sincere hope that one day, every school child will be taught the basics of listening. The more life experience I have, the more I believe that the ability to listen can literally save someone's life.

So in all seriousness I say that listening is a matter of life and death.

S. Hein

Carol Gotbaum - Customer Service, Understanding, Police Procedures and Preventable Death

Carol Anne Gotbaum

Carol Gotbaum died in a small room, handcuffed like a trapped animal. She was forced there by airport police after getting very emotionally upset about missing a flight which was very important to her.

From my experience, the most direct cause of Carol's death was a lack of listening, compassion, caring and understanding.

I have been in similar situations in airports. I know how they people treat someone who is late for a plane. Typically, they show no compassion and no understanding. They simply say "The flight is closed." Most of them don't really care how important it is to you that you get on the flight.

When I wrote the first draft of this atricle I wrote:

I hope that the family of Carol sues the airline for not showing their mother any compassion. I hope that they find psychologists to testify that when someone is upset, they just need someone to show some compassion, empathy and understanding. I fully believe Carol would be alive today if the airline staff had done this. I also believe she would still be alive if the police had done it.

Now I feel a little guilty because I sound hurtful and vengeful, as well as hypocritical since I am opposed to punishment and revenge. Yet on the other hand, a suit could help bring needed changes.

They interviewed someone in the police and asked if he thought the way the officers handled things was "appropriate." The police officer answered "absolutely." This is probably mostly because he feels defensive and protective of his officers. It may also be partly because he is simply ignorant, and partly because he lacks innate emotional intelligence. It is also because of his training in the police force. (Notice the word "force" in that term.)

The police officer also said they were following "standard procedure." But this doesn't make it the best thing to do. An unarmed, emotionally upset woman is not the same thing as a physically aggressive man with a weapon.

I hope that if the family sues the police and the airline, they will win a large settlement and do something beneficial with the money to help change how airlines treat their customers and what the police define "standard procedure."

Ironically, just the day before yesterday I was telling some friends about how I got upset one time in the airport in Atlanta. On that occasion, the representatives called the company management who came and then asked me respectfully to go with them to an office, which I agreed to. They then listened to my complaints and concerns. They did a good job of listening, which calmed me down quickly. They then gave me a small peace offering in the form of a free calling card so I could call the person who was waiting for me to let her know I would be late. I told my friends that if I had done the same thing in the USA now they would probably call airport security and have me arrested instead of calling the airline manager and helping me feel understood.

To conclude, I sincerely believe Carol's death could have been prevented with just some simple understanding on either the part of the airline or the police.

I hope the family and others take action to help bring about some positive changes in the standard business practices and standard police procedures, as well as helping re-define what the word "appropriate" means.

S. Hein


Not Listening Leads To Violence

Not listening can lead to violence. This can be on a one-to-one basis or group to group. If a country does not listen to people who feel passionately about something, these people may see violence as their only option. These people who were not listened to may then be called "terrorists."

Likewise, on a very large scale, when the government does not listen to the people, the people may eventually revolt with violence.

Right now in the USA there is a growing group of people who want to feel and be less controlled by the government. They want to be "sovereign citizens." Here is what one of them said in an interview with 60 Minutes:

The threat of violence is required because they will not listen. The system will not listen to people like me unless there are other people that back me up who have guns. - Alfred Adask (1)

I don't agree with this, but I am afraid that, sadly, many people do because they have not felt listened to, heard and cared about.

S. Hein


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