How You Can Tap into the Superpower of Listening

Matthew Dickson
15 min readOct 15, 2021

The Basics of Listening

We can all become better listeners. Listening to others is one of the most powerful yet underused people skills. Too often people leave a conversation not feeling heard, seen or understood. Not only does this make other people feel bad, but the process of communication, which in theory sounds straightforward (you say this, I say that), sometimes doesn’t even take place.

One of the biggest secrets to learning how to become a better listener is knowing “where the other person is”. That is, where are they mentally, emotionally? What state of mind are they in? This is where it is handy to be able to read body language or have emotional intelligence. Once you know “where they are”, you will know more easily when to say something and when to be quiet.

Too often in our world people don’t hear words of encouragement or praise. In fact, people too often hear negative words about them. Verbal abuse is rampant. The starting point in any negotiation or act of communication is finding out where each party is at at the beginning of the process. To do this you have to talk about yourself, but you also have to listen to the other person. We have a natural tendency to talk about ourselves more than the other person, so this is something we can work on. Luckily it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to improve our skills. There are easy things we can learn. We all have the ability to become better listeners.

Also, many people are suffering in our world — not just in faraway countries, but right in our own neighbourhood. So many people are going through painful experiences. How many people do you know who are going through cancer? Or divorce? Or mental illness? A death of a loved one? Many of these people would like to talk to others about their experience, but sadly that doesn’t happen often enough.

You can step up to the plate, armed with your newfound listening skills and be an open ear for them. We need more people in this world who can do that. Too many people suffer in silence. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Active-Constructive Listening

Have you heard of active-constructive listening?

There are 4 ways of responding to someone. Say you tell someone about something good that happened to you. The other person could respond by saying:

  1. active-constructive reaction — “Great! Good for you! I’m so happy for you! Tell me more about what happened!”
  2. passive-constructive reaction — “That’s nice….”
  3. passive-destructive reaction — “So what?”
  4. active-destructive reaction — “That’s stupid. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re such a loser!”

“Constructive” means you help the other person and are kind to them by saying something positive. “Destructive” is saying something negative. “Active” means you say a lot, either for the better of for the worse. “Passive” means you don’t say very much and it could be either positive or negative.

How do you respond to people? Do you usually respond in a more passive way to what other people say to you? Could you say more positive things to others? Aim to use the active, constructive response as much as you can.

Beware of Mind-Reading

Don’t be a mind-reader when you’re listening to someone else.

Let them finish. Don’t anticipate what they’re going to say and either 1) finish it for them or 2) interrupt them and start talking about what you want to say. Don’t read their mind and get the gist of what they’re talking about even though they haven’t said it.

Let them finish. It makes people feel heard. People enjoy talking. They want to feel like their words matter, their thoughts matter, that they matter. Just slow it down a little. You don’t have to have rushed conversations where you feel like you’re pressed for time and you have to convey information between parties as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Slow it down.

Ideally conversations should be fun and enjoyable. Do you like to laugh? Have fun with who you’re talking to. Try to see the humour in things. You don’t have to rush, rush, rush. Let them talk.

One of the things to remember is that sometimes when people are talking they might be saying something important for the very first time to anyone at all. They might not have uttered these words to anybody ever. When someone is feeling like this, and we interrupt them and finish what they’re saying, it is like taking the words out of their mouths and makes them feel not heard, not seen and unacknowledged. This has the potential to turn people away from you.

Have you ever wanted to tell somebody something that was exciting for you and they finished your sentences like it didn’t seem that important to them? Unfortunately we do this to others more often than we realize. Try to pay more attention to your own actions when dealing with other people. Be more aware of what you’re saying.

Slow it down. Make people feel heard. It just might win you some friends.

Try “Drive-Through” Conversations

Try “drive-through” conversations.

When you’re talking to someone, pretend you’re going through the drive-through window of a fast food place. When you’re ordering a burger, you tell them what you want and then they repeat back to you what you ordered to make sure they heard you right.

This is something that you can practice in your everyday conversations. By repeating back to people what they just said, perhaps not word for word, but by paraphrasing, it makes them feel heard and understood. Sometimes you may find that what you thought they said wasn’t correct. But when you repeat back what they said, this lets them know that you understand what they’re saying.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that sometimes people don’t want you to do this throughout the conversation. Sometimes people just need to vent and it could take them awhile to get everything out. And when they are in this state, it might not be helpful to interrupt very often, if at all, because you could take them off track when they just want to keep going with what they’re saying.

In the book called “Spark”, the mother of a highly intelligent autistic boy said that when he was young, he would be so excited about all of the things he was learning, that he would just get on a roll and talk for long periods of time about what he had learned. Because he was so smart, and because the mother didn’t understand some of the scientific things he was talking about, she said she had learned that she didn’t have to understand everything he was talking about; she just had to listen to him and be there for him. You can listen to every word someone is saying and be present emotionally in the conversation, even though some of the things they are talking about might not make sense to you.

The point is to know when to interrupt and give feedback or paraphrase what they said (like in the “drive-through” conversation) and when to sit back and just listen and let them get things off their chest or be excited to tell you everything they have learned/experienced.

How do you know the difference? This is when it is helpful to be able to read body language and have emotional intelligence to find out “where people are”. Are they needing a hug right now? Are they about to lash out at you? Are they feeling proud of something they’ve done? Are they looking for advice? Are they not looking for advice? Are they even listening to you?

By learning how to read other people, it will help you to find out what state other people are in emotionally/mentally. There many books and resources online that can help you do this. A great one that I usually recommend to people is “Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion” by George Thompson. It describes the method police officers use (called Verbal Judo) to deal with people. Another popular book is “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman.

Learning How to Sit With Someone in Their Uncertainty

People who are good listeners will sit there with us in our uncertainty.

Oftentimes we try to fix other people’s problems. We listen and then give them advice. Did they really want advice? Sometimes we do want advice. A lot of the time, though, we just want to be listened to. To be heard. To be acknowledged. To actually hear our own voice saying the things on our mind to someone else. That can be very cathartic. It doesn’t make us feel as alone. It gives us connection. It can make us feel like we exist. It can be comforting.

And as for advice, they say we should listen to people first, and then when they’re done we should ask them whether they want any advice at all. And we have to be okay if they say, no, that they don’t want any advice. We should be able to walk away and not try to force advice upon them. Sometimes life can be scary (or at least uncertain) and there’s nothing anybody can do about that. And even though there’s nothing anybody can do about that, we still like to talk about it.

Our problems, our uncertainty, our fears. Sometimes we simply need to get things off our chest. And to have someone who isn’t uncomfortable listening to us while we need a shoulder to lean on is a wonderful gift.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “it is a luxury to be understood”.

We have a tendency to want to try to fix other people’s problems. Sometimes people want us to fix their problems and sometimes they don’t. Simply sharing another person’s experience on this planet is, perhaps, one of the main reasons we’re on this planet.

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” — Carl Jung

Take a Cue From Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin has an uncanny ability to listen to everything you say, according to director Martin Scorsese in an interview.

This is something you could try to do. If somebody is talking to you and you are not paying attention, try to regain composure and get back into the conversation. Aim to be like Alec Baldwin. See if you can listen to every word someone says. If you drift off, try to get back to what they are saying as quickly as possible.

Make Someone Feel Like the Smartest Person in the World

A lady interviewed two candidates for a national political leadership position. After meeting the first candidate, she felt like she had just met the smartest person in the world. Then she met the other candidate. This time, however, after talking to him she said that she felt like she was the smartest person in the world.

How do you make people feel about themselves when you’re talking to them? Do you see in them their unlimited potential? Do you think about that when you’re talking to them? Or do you treat them like a lower version of themselves, someone who is just ordinary, doing ordinary things, while you have an ordinary conversation with them?

Do you treat them as someone they might be in the future, maybe years or decades down the road, as someone who has done very well for themselves? Do you build them up? Or do you take them down?

A waitress at a restaurant years ago did something differently at her job. Instead of treating her co-workers as the people of their positions, she decided to treat them as the people that they could be in the future. She went on to be a very successful business person and she credits this technique as something that helped her out tremendously to do this.

Whenever we somebody, we are only seeing them at a certain point in their life. We don’t see the homeless person as a happy, carefree child running about with their whole life ahead of them full of dreams and endless possibilities. Or as a successful person later in life. Not all homeless people stay homeless. Joe Roberts, a Canadian who was homeless as a youth, turned his life around and became a very successful business person. He ended up walking across Canada pushing a shopping cart, to raise awareness and funds for homelessness. The shopping cart symbolized those who were homeless. We tend to see what we see with our eyes, not our imagination.

How well do you see the possibilities in others? Are you able see to what they could be in them? And even more importantly, can you help them to see the possibilities in themselves? How many people have guided you in your life, and made you realize that you’re capable of more than you think? Could you be that person for others, helping them to tackle things they never thought possible?

A Lesson From the Horse Whisperer

The horse whisperer Monty Roberts says that when a horse is about to learn, get out of its way.

Can you tell by looking at someone when they’re thinking about something else, when they’re putting two and two together or, as Monty Roberts says, when they’re about to learn? Can you recognize the look in their eyes?

Learn how to read other people’s body language to know that if you say something during that time frame, they won’t hear you, or it will throw them off track and they won’t be able to put two and two together. They won’t be able to learn and make that connection in their head with their thoughts. Don’t interrupt them. Get out of their way.

In your average conversation, this learning period is very short, typically only a handful of seconds. But it’s a look in their eyes that people get. They’re not listening to you. They’re having a big idea, a big breakthrough. It only takes seconds, but it can contain real gems of wisdom.

When you’re conversing with others, too often we are not comfortable with silence. We feel we have to fill all the dead air with words. Sometimes, though, people can realize things while we’re talking to them. The conversation has made them have an idea about something.

When this happens, they can tune you out as they’re thinking about the idea. They know they’re still in a conversation, though, so they won’t tune you out for very long. It only takes a handful of seconds usually for this idea to bloom fully and then often they will want to tell you about it right there and then.

Unfortunately, this dead air can make us nervous and make us change the topic of conversation. And they never get a chance to tell you the great idea they had. Good interviewers know that when someone pauses, sometimes what they say next will be the best part of the whole interview.

Take a lesson from Monty Roberts. When you want to keep the conversation moving along at a good clip, sometimes it’s wise to just hold your horses.

A Lesson From America’s Most Admired CEO

Jack Welch, former head of General Electric, was labelled “America’s most admired CEO”.

Business people, interested in improving their business, would ask him what the number one thing they could do to improve their business was. He would say that the number one thing, above everything else, is the ability to talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime.

He said that if you can walk into a boardroom on the other side of the planet and close a deal, you’ve got it made.

How do you learn how to talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime? One of the big things is being able to read people, finding “where they are” mentally and listening to them. Listening is one of the biggest underused weapons we have when we deal with other people. And too often, we don’t feel like we’re being adequately listened to.

If you can be the person who actually listens to someone, you just may stand out from the crowd in their eyes. And in doing business deals or in just everyday conversations, being heard and understood makes the other person feel good about themselves. That is the whole point of communication in the first place — the correct and proper exchange of ideas.

A good resource on how to talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime is the book “Talk to Strangers: How Everyday, Random Encounters Can Expand Your Business, Career, Income, and Life” by David Topus. The author travels places sometimes for no reason other than to meet random strangers. This trick he learned has dramatically increased the number of customers to his business. He writes about all his methods of talking to strangers in the book. You never know who you’re going to meet. The more people you meet, the more possibilities for your life.

Making Someone Feel Comfortable to Share Things With You

In the book called “How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live” by Missy Vineyard, the author says that when one of her clients was talking to her one day, the client started talking about things that really mattered to her. After awhile of talking to her like this, the client said, “But why am I telling you all this?”

The client was stunned that she even told Missy these things, when she hadn’t planned to originally. Basically, Missy’s presence allowed the client to feel comfortable enough to open up to her.

What is your presence like? Do people feel comfortable enough to share things with you that they might not share with other people, even though they may not know you very well, or at all? Judy Carter, the author “The Message of You” says that people tell her things all the time, even things that some might say are too personal for them. People standing in the grocery checkout line will start to open up to her. Some people might take offence to this, but she embraces it and ends up having wonderful conversations with random strangers.

Everybody has a certain “window” of what they’re comfortable talking about. Some people’s windows are very big and some people’s are very small. Can you tell when you’re talking to someone when they might get a bit nervous about where the conversation is going? Do you know how to rein the conversation back in to less personal topics so they can remain in their comfort zone?

Having a lot of respect for other people is a key ingredient in making others comfortable enough to share things with you. If they feel like you might laugh at them for something they say, they are more likely to keep their mouths shut.

Someone I know escorts criminals from the prison to the courthouse. She is often asked to escort certain criminals because her presence calms them down. How calming are you to other people? Can you get others riled up? Or do you make others breathe a sigh of relief simply by being next to you?

Try to be like your dog or cat. They have very calming presences about them. They help us relax and feel good about ourselves. They don’t laugh at our ideas or judge us. Maybe we could take a lesson from their playbook.

Hanging on Their Every Word

If you really want to step it up a notch, practice “hanging on their every word”. People love it when you do this.

And you don’t have to do anything. Simply listen. When you think they might be done, wait some more to see if they come out with anything else. This is often when they’ll give away their best ideas. You just have to wait a bit longer for them — just a handful of seconds or so. You’ll want to jump into the conversation and say something, but resist it. This makes them feel like you’re hanging on their every word. It helps if you are comfortable with silence to do this. Some people aren’t comfortable with silence and want to fill the dead air with words.

It has been said that listening very well to someone, hanging on their every word, is like loving them. Think about it. Why do we love certain people? There are a number of reasons why, but one of them is that people who we love listen to everything we have to say. We have long conversations about all the little things that mean a lot to us.

They try to figure out what’s going on in our heads and in our lives. They show concern about us. They try to help us. They don’t gloss over the details of our lives and move onto something or someone else. They listen until we’re done and we’ve said what we have to say. Until our problems are solved or gotten everything off our chest.

The next time you’re talking to someone practice hanging on their every word. See how it feels. See how long you can pause in a conversation without interrupting them.

It might be a bit difficult at first, but like all things you can practice, you should get better at it with time.

I hope that some of the tips here have helped you. People who have gone through horrible things, like disease, loss of a loved one, severe injuries, and the like, often say that what they’ve learned from their experience is that people become a lot more important to them. Let’s start listening to each other. Don’t wait for tragedy to show you what’s important in life.



Matthew Dickson

Advocate for people with mental illness in developing countries at Bicycled across Canada twice, books, nature, fitness, learning, dancing!