There are many ways to be a good listener, but one of the best techniques is also one of the easiest. Just take a deep breath.
Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath. Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out ‘I am trying a new technique for better listening!’ No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.
Psychologists have repeatedly found that listening (particularly what's called "active listening") is integral to effective communication. One 2017 study found that people were better at identifying others’ emotions if they were just listening to their voices, rather than seeing them talk as well. Other research has found that people who listen to their partners with the aim of understanding the other person have more satisfying relationships than people who listen with the aim of formulating a response.
But it’s not just conversations between friends that can benefit from gaps in the dialogue. Ask any journalist for tips on interviewing, and they’re sure to mention a similar idea—embracing the silence, even if it’s awkward. While this can sometimes be framed as a way to trick closed-off interview subjects into filling the silence themselves, it’s also just a good conversational technique, no matter who you’re talking to.
“Most people need some time to grapple with their thoughts and formulate responses,” a guide to reporting on CNN’s website advises. “It's on you to give them that space. You don't know what memories or ideas are going through their minds, and if you jump in too quickly, you might miss a gem.” That’s true whether you’re having a professional conversation or gabbing with your best friend.
So the next time you’re trying to be there for someone as they tell you about their problems or confide in you, just remember: Breathe. As a bonus, you’ll probably feel a lot more relaxed, too.
[h/t Psychology Today]