When in doubt, listen.


If hearing somebody talk is like snapping a photo with your phone, then really listening to them is closer to sketching a portrait. I have already shared some ideas about when and where to have difficult conversations. This post pertains to skills for conversations that may not be difficult, but that are clearly important to the person who approaches you wanting to talk about something.

People seek you out for different reasons. Sometimes they want to vent or complain, sometimes they want advice, sometimes they want you to take some action or another. What these conversational aims have in common is the person approaching you who wants to be taken seriously (i.e., to feel listened to). The tricky part is that each type of desired outcome places a different expectation on you, and it’s not always easy to tell what that is.

So let’s start with a tip I’ve acquired the hard way. Things will not go well if someone just wants to vent about a problem but you assume they want your advice! Here’s a question worth inscribing in gold Sharpie:

“Would you like some advice, or would you rather I just listen?”

Knowing the answer to this question early in a conversation has served me as well at home as at work! As I continue to listen, I rely on concepts like the following, adapted from Madelyn Burley-Allen, former president of the American Listening Association.

Guidelines for Active Listening

1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior. 

  • Don’t attempt to form responses while listening. (Whenever I catch myself doing this, I know I’m not actually listening.)
  • Pay attention to nonverbal as well as verbal language: feelings as well as thoughts expressed through words, tone of voice, body language, personal space.
  • Remember that people from different cultural backgrounds may have differing attitudes about eye contact, appropriate physical space, etc.

2. Be a sounding board: allow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a non-judgmental, non-critical manner.

  • Remember that feelings are facts to the person experiencing them. Any emotional reaction you see may feel totally justified to the speaker.

3. Don’t ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are “grilling” the speaker. Instead, choose a few open-ended questions that allow the speaker to tell their story.

4. Act like a mirror: reflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling. (When I’m having trouble distinguishing between someone just needing to vent and someone with an issue that requires a change, I ask what change they would like to see.)

5. Don’t discount the speaker’s feelings by using stock phrases like “It’s not that bad,” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

6. Don’t let the speaker “hook” you or push your buttons. This can happen if you get angry or upset, allow yourself to get involved in an argument, or pass judgment on the other person.

7. Indicate you are listening by

  • Providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., “Uh-huh,” “I see.”
  • Giving nonverbal acknowledgements, e.g., head nodding, facial expressions matching the speaker, open and relaxed body expression, eye contact.
  • Invitations to say more, e.g., “Tell me about it,” “I’d like to hear about that.” These feel much more inviting than “Why” questions, which put people on the defensive. (My go-to lines are “Tell me more” and “Say some more,” suggested by the  talented counselor Maureen Mazzarese who also advises, “When in doubt, listen.” Such invitations are effective not only in one-on-one conversations, but also class discussions and meetings.)

8. Follow good listening “ground rules”:

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t change the subject or move in a new direction.
  • Don’t rehearse in your own head.
  • Don’t interrogate.
  • Don’t teach.
  • Don’t give advice.
  • Do reflect back to the speaker what you understand and how you think the speaker feels.


Madelyn Burley-Allen, Listening: The Forgotten Skill, (John Wiley & Sons, 1982).

Richard Salem, “Empathic Listening” in Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder (July 2003), accessed March 8, 2016.

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed. D. Image by Roy Chambers, based on one from Dr. Cindy S. Spiller’s homepage for a course in counseling and communication at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.]

Peter Horn