Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 27, 2021

Tips for listening when people confide in you

By CECILIA VORFELD | March 14, 2019

If listening was simply paying attention to a sound, such as what someone is saying, with great eye contact, nodding your head and with open body posture, it would be easy. At least, I would find it easier than it really is. However, people often come to talk to you about something and want you to say something in response. Sometimes this can be an affirmation of their feelings, telling them that you really hear them, but some people need more of a nudge to keep talking. 

The next step could be asking an open-ended question to encourage the person to talk further. This allows them to lead the conversation. You also avoid sounding judgmental. For example, if you ask someone “Why did you do that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” you can come across as wanting an answer, and often people don’t have a straightforward one. If you change those questions to something like “What were your motivations behind doing that?” or “What makes you feel that way?” it can be more effective. 

Questions like “Did you try this?” or “Do you want to do this?” may seem open-ended at first, but these are subtle ways of giving advice, which is something that we in A Place to Talk (APTT) strongly advise against. No one can know the situation like the person who experienced it, so I rarely feel capable of giving good advice to someone.

Often people can give themselves better advice if you help them think through their options. That said, sometimes you will not find a solution to their problem. That can be hard to admit. I love helping people work through their problems, and it is hard to be faced with an irresolvable situation. 

I have been criticized before for “APTTing” someone with open-ended questions, but I am not afraid of using them because they are immensely valuable. A typical therapist-type question I use is “How does that make you feel?” It often gets at exactly what the person wants to talk about or needs to address. Questions starting with “how” or “what” are usually good ways of making sure what you’re asking is open-ended. 

You can experiment with starting a question with “where” such as “Where do you think that feeling is coming from?” or “when” such as “When have you felt this way before?” if you are feeling adventurous. You just need to make sure it is relevant to what you have listened to and that the question cannot be answered with “Yes” or “No.” Even the simple question of “How?” can be very effective. It gets right to the point and is always appropriate. 

Another way of carrying on the conversation without asking a question can be through paraphrasing what someone has said. Repackaging what someone has given you in a more concise, understandable way and giving it back to that person can be hugely helpful for the person talking to understand what they are saying, especially when you vent and things seem so messy. A good way of paraphrasing is through what APTT calls “bookmarking.”

As you listen to someone, you “bookmark” keywords such as certain feelings. You can start a paraphrase with something like “It sounds to me like...” or “Correct me if I am wrong, but what I am hearing is that...” By doing this, you are clarifying for the other person, demonstrating that you are listening and checking in with them that you are understanding them correctly. Then you can follow up with the emotive words you picked up, on such as feeling upset, frustrated, stressed, guilty, weird, down or bad. 

However, all of these words are vague. They mean different things to different people. With a paraphrase or a question you can further explore what those words mean to the person you are listening to. Paraphrasing is not easy either since you have to be concise. You don’t want to deliver them a jumble of thoughts. The goal is to summarize what the other person has said. It is totally acceptable to take a moment to think of how you want to do so or to ask a question and leave some silence.

In the end, if you try and keep these things in mind and convey that you care and are trying your best to help someone explore their feelings, you are doing a good job at listening. It just takes practice.

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