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6 Ways to Be a Better Listener
Maria Luisa Tucker, Editorial Director, Youth Communication

You're upset. Someone asks you what's wrong, but you're only able to get a few words out before the person interrupts to tell you what you should've done or to chastise you for your behavior. You leave the conversation—if you could call it that—feeling ashamed or angry. Unfortunately, this is what teens too often experience when they try talking to adults about a problem: Sometimes we adults are so concerned with getting a young person on the right path by instructing them, directing them, or talking about consequences that we have a hard time simply listening.

It can certainly be hard to sit still and listen—especially when there are six other problems to attend to or a young person we care about is acting in a way that we know is self-destructive—but being able to listen well is one of the most useful skills you can have when working with teens. (At least we think so, which is why we're calling this site Here to Listen!) When a trusted adult listens well, it can help a young person move from agitated venting to a calmer, more thoughtful state in which problem-solving becomes possible. And, even bigger, it helps the young person build the emotional awareness that's necessary to successfully navigate life.

1. Use body language to show that you are really interested. Sit still, make eye contact, lean forward a little, nod.

2. Do not interrupt. If the young person pauses, allow some silence. Offer significant wait time for responses. Don't feel that you have to fill the space with advice or your own thoughts. Just let the quiet be and then gently move on.

3. Ask open-ended questions (rather than leading or yes/no questions), such as "What happened?" or "How did you feel about that?" Then allow the young person time to think and respond. These types of open-ended questions can help further the conversation in a nonjudgmental and thoughtful way.

4. Use verbal encouragement like "uh huh," or "tell me more," rather than jumping in with your own opinion or sharing your own story. Nonjudgmental verbal encouragements are meant to help the teen to explore his or her own thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

5. Paraphrase or restate what the person said. You might say, "What I hear you saying is that you feel..." or "It sounds like you're feeling," or "I'm sensing that you're feeling..." Sometimes this requires a guess rather than a simple re-statement, and your guess might be off. For example, if you say, "It sounds like you were really angry at Sara," and the speaker says, "not angry, just annoyed," that's OK. Your job is to help the speaker name her feelings and understand herself, and even a wrong guess can help move toward that goal. The idea is to reflect the speaker's feelings and help him/her build emotional self-awareness.

6. Work on identifying the feelings underneath thought statements. This means that, for example, if a teen says, "Nobody cares about me," you might respond by saying, "It sounds like you're feeling really alone right now. Did something happen to make you feel that way?" This kind of response can take some practice because we might naturally want to cheer the speaker up ("Of course people care about you!"), but reflecting and exploring a teen's emotions—rather than trying to quickly move them out of the negative feeling—can help them build the social and emotional skills they need to get through tough times.

Luisa Tucker
All Expert Advice articles are written by Maria Luisa Tucker, Youth Communication's Editorial Director, and based on interviews with our advisory board of mental health profressionals.
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