two young women walking and talking

How to Be a More Effective Listener (and What’s in it For You)


By Melanie Joy, PhD, social psychologist and author of Getting Relationships Right: How to Build Resilience and Thrive in Life, Love, and Work


There is truth to the maxim that a great conversationalist is a good listener. When we’re in the presence of a good listener, we feel heard, valued, and attended to. We see ourselves through compassionate eyes, so we feel safe knowing that we won’t be judged, and we feel validated and empowered—that we matter. We know we can be our authentic selves, and this experience alone can be liberating. We feel encouraged to explore and share our truth, and we don’t feel rushed to make our point, so we often develop greater self-insight and new perspectives on the situation we’re in. Indeed, often when we’re experiencing a problem, the simple act of being listened to can melt our defenses and open our minds. Many problems are solved simply by having them heard.

There is truth to the maxim that a great conversationalist is a good listener. —@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

Good listeners are, unfortunately, few and far between. Most of us are starved for the kind of attention we get from someone who knows how to listen, so when we find a sympathetic ear, it can feel intoxicating. We may find ourselves sharing personal information we never intended to disclose or talking so much we end up apologizing for monopolizing the conversation.

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When we listen effectively, we’re more present; we’re not caught up thinking about the future or the past or wishing we were anywhere other than right where we are. And we’re not planning the next thing we’re going to say while the other is talking. We’re here, now, practicing the “three Cs” of effective listening: compassion, curiosity, and courage. And in so doing, we help the other to be more present as well.

the three Cs of effective listening: compassion, curiosity, and courage. —@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

When we don’t listen effectively, we pay a high price, and so do those with whom we communicate. We can be seen as boring and narcissistic, interested in only our own life and unable or unwilling to focus on others, and we can also get caught off guard by problems we didn’t see coming. Many relationships, for example, have ended with one person shocked and devastated because they didn’t make the effort to listen when the other was trying to communicate their unhappiness and needs. And when we don’t listen effectively, we lose connection and intimacy, because others feel that they don’t matter enough for us to pay attention to them. People stop sharing themselves when they get the message that the listener isn’t interested in what they have to say—and perhaps the best way to communicate a lack of interest is to not listen well.

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Many relationships, for example, have ended with one person shocked and devastated because they didn’t make the effort to listen when the other was trying to communicate their unhappiness and needs. —@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

Effective listening is made up of two components. When we listen effectively, we employ both compassionate witnessing and active listening.

Compassionate Witnessing

Compassionate witnessing is a way of relating that is validating: it is listening with compassion and empathy, and without judgment, all with the goal of understanding. When we compassionately witness another, our goal is not to be right, to win an argument, or even to fix a problem. It’s simply to understand the truth of the other’s experience. When we compassionately witness another, we are saying, “I see you. I empathize and I care.”

When we compassionately witness another, we are saying, I see you. I empathize and I care. —@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

To be truly seen is a great gift, one that is sorely lacking in most of our lives and in the world at large. Many of us go through our lives feeling largely invisible, feeling that in order to be accepted we have to stuff away parts of who we are—to swallow our words when we’re hurting or ashamed or afraid, and to play the game of “let’s pretend,” even with ourselves. And to act as a witness is also a great gift: when another chooses to share vulnerable parts of themselves with us, it is an honor. It is a statement of trust in our integrity, and in some ways, there can be no greater compliment.

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Compassionate witnessing can transform not only our relationships but also our lives and our world. We can practice compassionate witnessing on different levels—toward ourselves, toward others, and collectively, toward the broader culture as well as the animals and the environment. When we compassionately witness ourselves, we deepen our connection with ourselves, and we increase our integrity and decrease our shame. When we practice compassionate witnessing toward the world, we empathize with those who are suffering and help create a more compassionate planet. Indeed, virtually every atrocity was made possible by a populace that turned away from a reality they thought was too painful to face. And virtually every social transformation was made possible because a group of people chose to bear witness and encouraged others to bear witness as well.

Active Listening

Active listening includes the following four components:

  • Using engaged body language
  • Clarifying
  • Paraphrasing
  • Giving feedback
Active listening includes the following four components: Using engaged body language, clarifying, paraphrasing, giving feedback. —@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

Engaged body language includes keeping your arms unfolded, not yawning or hiding your face behind your hands, pointing your body toward the speaker and leaning slightly forward, and, when possible, making eye contact. Some people are not able to focus when they make eye contact, and in some cultures, eye contact is seen as rude. If you’re communicating with someone from a culture in which eye contact is a sign of listening, it’s best to let them know if you prefer not to make eye contact so that they don’t misinterpret your body language as communicating disinterest.

Clarifying is asking for more information when you need clarity, which helps to ensure that you understand the other and to show you’re listening. For example, you might say, “So was it your mother or your stepfather who made the comment about your being impossible to please?”

Paraphrasing is summarizing in your own words what the speaker has said, and then checking with them to be sure you’ve understood correctly. Paraphrasing, like clarifying, helps both speaker and listener. For example, you could say, “So it sounds like you were surprised and hurt to learn that your sister felt you were being unsympathetic. You hadn’t realized how afraid she was feeling about her recent diagnosis. Is that right?” (It’s generally a good idea to check to make sure your paraphrase is accurate.)

Giving feedback means sharing your reaction to what has been said—sharing your thoughts, feelings, and possibly advice (if the speaker wants it). All of this should happen only after you have been a compassionate witness; people are rarely open to feedback if they don’t first feel fully listened to and understood. For example, you could say, “Thank you for sharing all that with me. I’m glad you trust me enough to be so open with me. To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to hear that you feel judged by me. I’m not sure how to change that, but I want to, and I want to discuss this further. I’ll need some time to think more about what you said, so let’s set aside time to talk this evening.”

Active listening is an essential component of effective listening. It’s not enough simply to be quiet when another is talking. If you don’t respond, you communicate that you either didn’t listen or don’t care enough to share your feedback. Either way, the other will feel ignored, hurt, and resentful and will be less likely to communicate with you openly again.

Although not all situations require employing all four components of active listening, if someone has spoken to us, it’s our responsibility to show them that we’ve heard them. They have no other way of knowing whether we’ve paid attention. Expecting others to be mind readers—whether they are our partner, our employee, or a stranger on a bus—is neither fair nor feasible. It’s the listener’s job to communicate that they’ve listened, even if the expresser’s statement didn’t require a full response. At the very least, we need to make the right noises to let the expresser know we’ve heard them: “Oh, okay” or “Aha.” Total silence after any communication will almost inevitably be interpreted as dismissive, uninterested, and simply rude. And ideally, we would respond in a tone that matches the tone of the situation. So if your friend excitedly shares with you that their application for a mortgage was finally approved, and you say in a flat tone, “Yeah, that’s great,” they’ll likely not feel heard. Or if your colleague tells you of a painful break up and you say, “Huh, sorry about that,” they’ll feel you’re not empathizing with them.

It can also be helpful to become aware of your blocks to listening, the situations that make it more difficult for you to listen effectively. Perhaps you are less able to listen effectively at a certain time of day, in certain environments (e.g., where there are loud noises or distractions), with certain people, or around certain topics. When you know your personal blocks to listening, as well as those of the other, you can plan your conversations accordingly and reduce the risk of your communications becoming unproductive or harmful.

When you know your personal blocks to listening, as well as those of the other, you can plan your conversations accordingly...—@DrMelanieJoy Share on X

getting relationships right book coverHarvard-educated psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy is the world’s leading expert on the psychology of eating animals. Her work has been featured by national and international media outlets around the world, including the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, and ABC Australia. She is the author of the award-winning book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, as well as Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters and Strategic Action for Animals and Getting Relationships Right: How to Build Resilience and Thrive in Life, Love, and Work. Dr. Joy is also an internationally acclaimed speaker, a relationship coach, and a communication specialist. She is the founding president of the charitable organization Beyond Carnism and a co-founder of ProVeg International.

From the book Getting Relationships Right by Melanie Joy, PhD. Copyright © 2020 by Melanie Joy, PhD. Published on February 11, 2020 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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