How to develop effective listening skills?

Yesterday was #TimeToTalk Day. Sorry I’m a day late with this post.

Let’s end mental health discrimination —

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet too many people are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless because of this. Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

Oh, most of us know how to talk, yes? But how many people know how to listen? Actively listen? Well, from my personal and professional experiences — very few, so that’s our topic for today — Listening Skills.

Hands up — as you’ve been telling your ‘story’, who’s had someone butting in with “Oh, my gran’s neighbour’s youngest granddaughter is…………. “?

Ffs — I don’t know their gran, I don’t know their neighbour and I neither know nor care what the heck granny’s neighbours youngest granddaughter is, does or bloody well thinks.

Boring conversations —
B2M Productions/Getty Images

My mum’s great at that one, “Oh remember wee Grettel doon the road from thirty years ago? Oh, maybe thirty three — or four. Well…….” she puffs in response to me just telling her I’ve had a cough and a sore throat.

Me, eyes rolling, “No mum. I don’t.”

“Och you do. Her mum was …………. Well, anyway, her wee boy’s best pal’s mum went into hospital with a cough she couldnae get rid of and bless her, she passed away. She was only in there for three days. Poor wee boy, eh?”

“Aha (means yes in Scotland) mum.” Moving on quickly —

See, when I’m telling my ‘story‘, particularly when I’ve been asked to tell it i.e. mum says “How are you?”, I want to tell it, without interruption and be heard and properly listened to. Mum might get the hint when I show her this next bit:

Common mistakes we make while ‘listening

While it’s good to talk and be open about mental health, you might agree that not everyone listens effectively. Common mistakes we make while we’re supposed to be ‘listening’:

Not listening —
  • We’re distracted i.e watching or answering our phones, texting etc or perhaps we’re chasing small children around or we’re eying up the candy at the next table 😉
  • We daydream — we’re gazing out of the window or around the room/cafe/bar and not looking interested in the other person’s ‘story’.
  • We’re rehearsing our response — thinking of how to answer, thinking about what we’re going to say next, “maybe I’ll say something funny?” to take away the tension.
  • We mind read — we make assumptions about what the other person’s thinking and feeling or what they’re going to say next and we interrupt – “Oh, I know what you’re gonna say.”
  • We filter —we zone in on the points that diminish someone’s argument, so we can say they’re wrong and make our own arguments right.
  • Placating — telling the other person “Yes, I agree. He is a pig.”without putting in an effort to hear the whole ‘story‘ and understand. And remember, while it’s okay for someone to miscall their mum/boyfriend/partner, it’s not okay for you to do it.
  • Judging — we’re making up our own opinion of a friend/person, their ‘story‘, their argument i.e if you think of the person as a know-it-all, it might stop you from listening.
  • Debating — you can’t listen if you’re interrupting, arguing, and disputing everything.
  • Derailing — interrupting and bringing the focus back to what you want to discuss or because you don’t want to tackle a tough conversation.
  • Advising — jumping in and offering solutions before they’ve got to the end of their ‘story’ – they might have solved it already and just want you to listen.

People often tell me I’m a good listener and sometimes I really wish I wasn’t.

A friend in Spain starts off with “Ello darlin’. How are you?” and without stopping to breathe, he starts “I’ve had such a busy day……..” then goes on to explain everything in minute detail. He tells me where he’s been, whether he was driving or walking and what he’s done, which could take him twenty minutes plus. And I sit there nodding, smiling and doing the “uh huh” thing and “Ahh” while maintaining good eye contact — until he stops!

You might have gathered by now that I see listening as so much more than just hearing. Listening is what happens when we not only open our ears, but also open our minds – and sometimes our hearts – to another person. Listening is not a passive skill. Listening is an active skills that not everyone has — true but, trust me, it’s easily learned. We’ve already looked at poor and passive listening.

So, what is active listening?

The 7 key active listen skills according to the Centre for Creative Leadership:
  1. Be attentive. Look interested and give good eye contact – you don’t need to stare at a person, just look long enough so they see you’re interested – try not to stare into the person’s eyes, just above the nose is a good place.
  2. Ask open-ended questions like “Tell me what’s happening with/for you.” or “Tell me what the matter?” and let them speak, uninterrupted. Don’t ask Yes and No questions like “Are you upset? or “Is there a problem?” because you’ll probably get a sharp yes or no in response.
  3. Ask probing questions like “I’m interested to hear, tell me more.” or “How did that make you feel?”
  4. Request clarification like “I’m not sure I understand, can you explain a bit more?” or “I’m not quite sure I get that last bit, do you want to repeat it?”
  5. Paraphrase – perhaps say “What I heard was ………….., did I get that right?” repeat back to them in your own words.
  6. Be attuned to reflect feelings – determine the feelings and emotions in a person’s verbal and body language and state those feelings back to the person.
  7. Summarise – you might say something like “Okay, so what you’ve said is this, this and this. Am I right so far?”


Being an active listener is important
— Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty Images

Effective listening is something you can do with everyone you come across i.e. family, friends, partners, children, colleagues etc. Good listening encourages the speaker to feel considered and valued and hopefully you’ll gain something from the conversation.

Apart from the practical benefits, being an active listener is important for aspects of your social life. Relationships where someone talks all the time and never listens to you aren’t well balanced at all. Reciprocation is necessary for any good relationship – a mutual exchange during the conversation. If someone’s talking at you without listening in return, you’re unable to develop a meaningful, healthy and mutually beneficial relationship. Ditto if you’re doing all the talking.

What might you take away from this post? Do you recognise yourself in the common mistakes section or do you see yourself as an active listener?

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” — Larry King


Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

29 thoughts on “How to develop effective listening skills?”

  1. Rehearsing a response is the trap I’m most likely to fall into. I think part of it is a memory issue, as I worry I’ll forget about a point that I wanted to address.

  2. ‘You listen, when you shut up’.
    I have the same problem as Ashleyleia. I try to remember a point I want to make, so or I need to interrupt or I interrupt later too tell that I forgot what I was wanting to add.

  3. With people in our home, our error is trying to fix everything. We feel their pain so acutely sometimes.

    On the flip side, we may be so wrapped up in our perceived struggles, we’ll mentally minimize this person’s long commute or limp salad. Trying to muster empathy then can fall short.

  4. You triggered a thought in me (not bad for a Friday afternoon!) You know how we are in a general conversation? How are you? Fine, how are you? Immediately after the stroke, it made me so self-centred. As in somebody would say “how are you?” and I would say “I’m very well thank you. Blah, blah, blah.” I would be perfectly polite, but wouldn’t reciprocate. I didn’t think to ask how they were. Actually, I wasn’t much bothered, compared to how I was doing myself. In fact, I’ve kind of had to retrain myself to do that.
    I guess my point is, maybe there’s something of that in all of us? Maybe speak/listen is something we learn as a toddler? Maybe I had to learn to do this again like I’ve had to learn to do other things again? Maybe most of us have trained ourselves, from childhood, for this “social etiquette” of speaking and listening (with various degrees of success!) But maybe our nature is just to treat listening just as “the pause before we get to speak”? Talking of speaking, I’ve done enough!

    1. Oh of course – treat listening as “the pause before we get to speak” — we’ve all been through that lol. And of course, when we’re sick and people visit, they ask “how are you?” we answer and we’re not interested in their story. It’s all about us, and why not in those instances. If you want to talk for an hours or so, without anyone interrupting, best to talk to a counsellor lol or someone like me (even funnier) cos everyone says I’m a good listener.

      1. You just reminded me that in my early 20s, all my mates’ girlfriends liked me ‘cos they said I was a good listener. Mostly I remember my early 20s for being totally screwed up myself! So I must’ve had this dumb expression on my face which looked like a “good listener” 😆.

  5. I love how you’ve approached this from the other angle – for talking to help and for it to be a positive experience for someone (rather than to put them off ever opening up again, which it has done for me in the past), it needs to involve the other person listening well. “I see listening as so much more than just hearing” – I totally agree. It also requires a degree of adaptability on their part, to respond as appropriate to the content, to that person and what they may want and need at that time. Which you’ll be able to do, if you’re actively listening. Fantastic post, you’ve covered this very thoroughly and made excellent points because even those of us that are told we’re good listeners aren’t perfect and there may be times we’re distracted and such. Very well written.
    Caz xx

    1. I obviously learned it all at uni and through work. It drove me nuts in class – the people that would just talk for the sake of it and interrupt everyone else with their own views and opinions. Rather than just to listen to someone – not to tell them they’re wrong cos in my country blah blah blah… And if you’re with a patient, it’s essential to ‘shut up’ and just hear the other person. But of course, it’s not always easy – I had to have a minute or two to myself prior to seeing a patient for an hour – I had to empty my head of what to get for dinner, or my stupid ex. I’d take a few deep breaths then in I went – to ‘be with’ the patient 🙂

  6. My huge issues are placating and advising. I always want to give advice! Oh my goodness. I have to give advice all the time! And with placating, I have a visceral gut pull to say, “Oh, how dreadful of him to have done that!” It’s almost impossible for me not to! 😮 Listening is freakin’ hard, no joke. And then I realize what the person did wrong at the very beginning of their speech, and I have to withhold the urge to say, “But why didn’t you…?” and keep listening instead. It’s like a weird form of agony. 😛 But it can be easier for me (and maybe for a lot of people) to “listen” via email, because then we’re not going through all these mental filters while reading about whatever’s upsetting someone. That could even be a way to practice good listening–pretend you’re reading an email instead of listening to someone physically. But it’s still hard. Great post!

    1. Thank you Meg, glad you enjoyed this post. And you’re right — it is so hard, especially when someone’s waffling. I want them to hurry up and finish speaking so I can jump in with “advice” and “placate’ them too. Sometimes I just want to say “Is there an end to this story?” lol — Caz x

  7. I am in the ‘interupt way too much’ category also. Somehow or other I think what i have to to say is more on point than what the other person is saying and, moreover, that the other person will agree that what I have to say is more on point.

  8. I heard a lot of life stories riding the bus, but I’m not sure if that’s because I was a good listener or if that’s just how it works on buses. 😊 I know I do have a tendency to rehearse. Not hard to figure out why, though. I spent a lot of time editing my words as an English major, so even with simple conversation I keep going through several revisions to find the one I want to say.

  9. I enjoyed the refresher of this post for me as a no longer working RN/RPN. I am a good listener, but..can like any of us fall down on it. I too seem to have a face that says you can share with me. Especially at cafes. I will always listen, even more so now. I know from my own personal journey of my illness that I may be the only person that the one who is sharing with me has to speak to or have listen to them in many days. Being heard is such an important thing.

    1. Aaaww, glad you enjoyed it Tazzie, I appreciate that. Oh, I get you — that kind of face lol. But I still feel I need to listen to a person if they chat to me in a lift etc and find it difficult to walk away. We have 2 floors in our block of flats that house young people with mental health difficulties and tho’ I’ve never told them I was a MH nurse, they’re always telling me about their voices etc. There’s been a few moments at reception where one of these kids get agitated with the staff and I always end up intervening and calming them down. Even when the police have been on the way, I’ll stay with the young person and explain their situation to the police. Sometimes the staff that are supposed to look after them are just plain rude and lazy! It’s their fault these young people get so upset.

      1. Oh it is not a good mix when staff have no empathy with the clients/residents. I always take the time as it sounds as if you do too. I know I would be a much better mental health nurse if I worked now. It is such a shame that the police are the first point of call. Same issue here. There should be crisis mental health workers, 24/7 attached to police who can come out with a plain clothed officer in a car. If the person does need to be taken to hospital then they can be transported in the unmarked car.

  10. This is brilliant advice! When a friend comes to mine for a chat I often put my phone face down and in silent mode and turn off the tv so they have my full attention to talk xxx

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