Paying Attention (Listening to Others) Makes All the Difference

One of the most underrated (and sadly, undervalued) things in our society is the art of listening. By this I mean….the art of truly paying attention. What does this mean?

Truly listening to someone implies

  • Giving them our full, undivided attention (good eye contact, a body posture that shows we’re really paying attention, and facial expression that is consistent with our sincere intent to pay attention)
  • Never talking over them. Okay, almost never...we are only human, after all! I have to work on this one myself.
  • Paying close attention to the words and phrases he/she uses to describe themselves and what is important to them. This is extremely important, because if you follow up by asking them more about these things, you show them that you care about what is important to them! This goes a long, long way in building trust and rapport with someone.
  • Not thinking about what we’re going to say next. Okay, now this one really is tough!! I’ve done this countless times. However, with practice, almost anyone can greatly improve their ability to truly zero in on what’s being said by another person at that moment. I must emphasize the need for practicing this, and being persistent and patient with yourself as you do. In addition, some things that can help you improve on your ability to focus in on what the speaker is saying are
  • Steady, deep breathing
  • Good eye contact
  • Paying attention to body language
  • Lots of practice
  • More practice….be persistent and patient with yourself. If you work at this, you will get better. It’s so worth it!
  • Yes...more practice. Am I making myself clear yet?!
  • Monitor your mood. In other words, if you are angry, frustrated, anxious, etc., it’s probably a good idea to wait and have the conversation at a later time. If this is not possible, I strongly suggest doing some self-soothing exercises to get yourself into a better emotional space quickly

An excellent article on good listening practices can be found here.

Giving People the Benefit of the Doubt

One other crucial factor in being an effective listener and communicator is giving people the benefit of the doubt. Read that again, please.

What do I mean?

How many times have you encountered a situation where you know part of the story. What does your brain usually do? It fills in the blanks with assumptions. While this is useful and necessary at times, it really harms our relationships with others at other times. Think about it: Someone we think is a reliable source tells us that one of our friends has said something bad about us. For some of us, we immediately feel hurt.

What just happened? We heard something, second-hand, and made an assumption that this is what actually happened. Ask yourself: can I give my friend the benefit of the doubt until I can tell them what I’ve heard and ask them for their side of the story? Or should I assume that my friend has back-stabbed me and be hurt? It’s your choice, but please make this a conscious choice.

As a mental health counselor, and especially as a couples counselor, I have seen so much pain and hurt in relationships caused by people making negative assumptions based on partial information. I’ve done myself at times. I only hope I’ve gotten better at giving people the benefit of the doubt as I’ve lived and learned from experience.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean being blind or naive. It simply means you realize that you don’t know the whole story, and you aren’t going to jump to negative conclusions without having the full story. Try to find out the missing pieces to the situation, then come to a conclusion, whatever that may be. When in doubt, ask for more information. Active Listening is a great tool in this situation. Say to the person “here is what I have heard; tell me your side of the story please”. Or perhaps, “Help me understand what you are saying/doing”. Or, “I’m confused….help me understand where you are coming from…”

Non-verbal Communication Shows we are Paying Attention

Or it can show that we're not!

Our body language, eye contact, breathing, sighs, and hand gestures will all play a part in communicating our message. Therefore, IF these things are in synch with our words, they will reinforce the message to the speaker that we are concerned about what they have to say. If however, your non-verbal body language does not indicate interest, then you will undermine your intended message. Make sense? Here is a visual to reinforce the point:


Catch my drift? Enough said.

Paying Attention is the Most Important Aspect of Effective Communication....

....and quite possible the most neglected aspect!!

It makes sense that effective communication follows from paying attention. Once we’ve paid good attention, we are in a position to

  • Ask clarifying questions about anything we aren’t sure about
  • Paraphrase or summarize, to see if we got it right
  • Ask for more information or highlight something that was said
  • These tips are part of the process called Active Listening. More on that here on the active listening webpage.

As we wrap up this important topic, it’s important to emphasize the following as fundamentally important to our being effective communicators (in other words, really paying attention!).

  • A commitment to listening when we enter an interaction with another
  • Trying our best to understand the wants/needs of the speaker
  • Be willing to hear ‘no’ or experience rejection
  • Awareness of your non-verbal communication: remember, this will either underscore OR undermine your intentions!!

One final note: If this is a topic of particular interest to you (and if you’ve gotten this far, I assume it is), I’d strongly recommend the book entitled Be Quiet Be Heard by Susan and Peter Glaser. I had the good fortune of attending one of their workshops 10 years ago and have read the book. It is truly a worthwhile read, and if you apply their tips and approach, your communication skills will benefit greatly!

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