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Workplace Mental Health

Listening Is a Skill You Can Build. Here’s How.

Woman having a difficult phone conversation at home
Woman having a difficult phone conversation at home
Deb Wise Harris

Deb Wise Harris

National Manager of Communications, Canadian Mental Health Association

Sharing how you feel is an important part of building authentic connections, in life and in business. But listening to what others are saying, and learning to really hear them, is just as important.

Building real connection with other people in your life can take some getting used to — especially when it’s so normal in our society to go through the motions and have surface conversations.

Studies show that we spend about 70–80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking, and 45% listening. Unfortunately, studies also confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners.

The good news is that listening is a skill you can build, and science offers some proven tips to help you hone the art of giving someone a sympathetic ear.

Some “dos” to show you’re really listening:

  • Let the other person know you’re listening by simply saying so: “Tell me what you really mean. I’m listening.”
  • Ask to have your turn, if you would like to share too. Listening makes it more likely the other person will listen to you.
  • Show empathy and understanding when the other person expresses negativity or difficulties. You could say, “I understand” or “I get where you’re coming from.”
  • Listen actively, carefully, and attentively. Listen in order to understand.
  • Stay present with the other person. Think of listening as a kind of meditation.
  • Only chime in with your own feelings when it feels right. A person may have a lot to say, and it they need to take all the space at first, give it to them.
  • When’s it’s appropriate, ask questions, but you will want your questions to be curious ones that don’t fill the blanks, and aren’t leading. Curious questions don’t contain the answer already. They don’t end in “Right?”
  • Show the other person you are listening by facing them, being relaxed in your posture, and through good eye contact. If you seem disengaged, you aren’t likely to encourage them to really share.

Some “don’ts” to avoid:

  • Avoid thinking of the of the next thing to say. These are “mental side trips” and are distracting.
  • Avoid giving advice — you can problem-solve together through the conversation.
  • Interruption or cutting off the other person will shut them down.
  • Avoid judgments.
  • Avoid assuming you know what the person is going to say next.
  • Don’t worry that you’ll say the wrong thing. Being self-conscious can be distracting.
  • Avoid talking over the other person.
  • Don’t explain why they shouldn’t feel that way.
  • Don’t try to solve the other person’s problems.
  • Don’t over-talk — let the conversation flow, let it be a real exchange.

By following these “dos” and “don’ts,” you are one your way to listening for real. And on your way to real, meaningful connection.


2. Kate Murphy (2020), “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters”
3. Michael Nichols (2009), The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning To Listen Can Improve Relationships

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