I’ve never been that good of a listener. I have the typical (some might insert “male” here) habit of wanting to dive in and fix things without necessarily making sure that I have fully heard the other person. So I was particularly interested when I had a chance to hear Kate Muir, a researcher from the University of the West of England, speak about her research on listening.
Muir had people share stories of pleasant and unpleasant events that happened to them either without with an unresponsive listener, or with an interactive listener and then measured how the listener behavior affected the change in emotions that the speaker felt about what they had shared.
As you might expect, the interactive listener was most likely to increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions in the speaker. But more interestingly, she analyzed the conversation patterns to see what the successful listeners did that helped their partners feel better about whatever they shared:
- They established an alignment between the speaker and the listener. Listeners do this by giving verbal encouragement and showing that they are paying attention and understanding the story. The speaker not only is able to successfully share their story and establish mutual understanding, but any emotional reactions they have to the events in their story are also acknowledged and validated.
- Emotional support was offered by the listener. This is demonstrated by empathic responses to the emotional tone of the story or when the listener practices “self-disclosure” to share something similar from their own past (“That happened to me once, too,” or “I feel the same way sometimes.”)
- The listener encouraged a positive focus by picking up on subtle positive angles of a speaker’s story and helping the speaker to build a positive interpretation of the story’s outcome. To be clear, this is not the listener trying to foist a more positive version onto the speaker, but rather the listener being attuned to the speaker’s attempts to find the positive and then a mutual collaboration to bring some positive interpretation to the story.
This is a small study with limited statistical power, but it seems to support other research done on listening (search Active Constructive Responding [Gable, Gonzaga & Strachman], Empathetic Listening Styles [Lepore et al.], Helpful Listener Responses for Emotional Recovery [Lehman & Hemphill], etc.) Also it is hard to be formulaic about something like this as every story is different, every speaker is different and every listener is different.
Muir found, for example, that people tended to be more empathic or more positive but did not employ both strategies at the same time. How the strategies get chosen may come down to individual preferences, the dynamic of the dyadic relationship between the speaker and the listener or the nature of the story being shared.
Muir’s research is helpful for thinking about your own listening style. What strategies do you employ when someone relates a positive experience? How about a negative one? Being a good listener is a valuable skill . . . one that the world needs more of.