Fake it ‘Til You Make it: How to Be a Good Listener

Three tactics that will get you through any conversation.

You’re staring off into space, thinking about what’s left in your fridge that could possibly be pieced together for dinner. Just as you’re finalizing a plan to make chicken cutlets, you’re jolted back into reality.

“Are you even listening?”

Oh, right. You’re supposed to be listening to your friend vent about her boss. It’s just that she’s been going in circles about it for 20 minutes now, and while you’ve picked up bits and pieces, you can’t help zoning out.

No, really, you can’t help it. Studies connected by Harvard Business Review found that “immediately after the average person has listened to someone talk, he remembers only about half of what he has heard—no matter how carefully he thought he was listening. Another study conducted by the University of Michigan that put the listening skills of several thousand students to the test found that two months after listening to a talk, the average listener will remember only about 25 percent of what was said. Which means if your friend revisits this conversation down the line, you’re not going to remember much.

So if listening isn’t one of your strong suits, what can you do to at least make it seem like you’re intently hearing every word, when you really aren’t? Here are some habits of good listeners that you can emulate to make it seem like you’re paying attention to your friend’s latest dilemma — even if you’re actually thinking about what’s waiting for you at home in your Netflix queue.

Use Empathy

The ability to empathize helps us understand each other, and can even affect how happy or sympathetic you can feel for another person. It’s also a great tool to use when you’re trying your best to relate to someone else’s situation and come off as interested and invested in the conversation. Even if you haven’t been in the exact same situation as your pal, listening expert Paul Sacco, Ph.D. said that you can still foster a connection using empathy. “Spend a moment putting yourself in their position, what’s going through their head and what it must be like for them,” Sacco told the Huffington Post. “Understanding what their experience is even before you talk to them [can help you connect with them]. And it sounds bad, but even if you blow it, you’re still better off because the other person will see the attempt.”

Ask Challenging Questions

It’s not just the nodding in understanding that makes someone appear to be a good listener. According to Bernard T. Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, asking questions that make the person you’re listening to see the other side of things also makes you seem invested in the situation at hand. In a recent article, Ferrari wrote, “Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.” From a business standpoint, this type of tactic works to elicit the information you need from the person you’re actively listening to. From a personal perspective, it shows that you’re engaged in the conversation at hand, and care enough about the person you’re speaking to, to offer other ways of looking at their given scenario.  

Use a System

When sound and communication expert Julian Treasure found that humans are only retaining a mere 25 percent of what we’re hearing, he developed an easy-to-follow system to help people stay active and present in the conversations they have with each other. “The acronym is RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for juice or essence,” he explained in his TedTalk on ways to become a better listener. “RASA stands for: receive, which means pay attention to the person; appreciate, making little noises like ‘hmm,’ ‘oh,’ ‘okay’; summarize—the word ‘so’ is very important in communication; and ask—ask questions afterward.” Making small noises throughout your conversation makes the person you’re listening to feel heard without being interrupted, and being able to summarize what’s been said to you reinforces that you’re listening and present. Which essentially means you can appear to be a good listener just by muttering a few short words and spitting back what’s been said to you a few times during your conversation.

To recap: Empathize with the person you’re listening to, ask challenging questions and utter the occasional “mhmm” to show you’re following along with the conversation—even if you’re not.