3 Components of a Good Listener

0012“I need you to listen to me with your eyes,” Stephanie, my wife, says as we’re discussing our upcoming weekend plans. Truth be told, I was in the middle of a project on my computer and didn’t want to stop.

“I’m listening, just keep talking,” I reply. She continues talking and then asks me for input about making a decision about our kids sporting activity. I hesitate, trying to recall the data from the previous 30 seconds. The reality was this: I wasn’t listening, I was just hearing her voice.

I’m a pretty typical male and have a really difficult time multi-tasking. This isn’t an excuse, it’s just a fact that I failed to be aware of in this moment. It’s not that I didn’t want to discuss our weekend plans, but I didn’t want to do it right then and there. Explaining this to her would have been helpful, and could have saved us multiple offenses.

Good listeners know and act on their limitations.
Knowing our limitations is the work of learning our own story and makeup of who we are. By knowing ourselves, we can plan and sometimes prevent situations from occurring that will hurt, trigger, or harm someone we care about. In the above situation, just by speaking up and requesting 5 minutes to finish my project would have saved my wife and I the time and energy of an avoidable fight. My limitation was that I do not multi-task well. Instead of proactively asking for this, we spent the better part of a day recouping from a five minute problem.

Good listeners ask lots of questions.
The basis for all relationships is built on the foundation of curiosity. If we are not curious people, we will not get to know others. Asking questions is a way that we can make sure that we understand and hear what the other person is attempting to communicate.

My 8 year-old daughter has a bit of flair for the dramatic and will often exaggerate a story (she’s a fantastic story teller, by the way). Sometimes when she’s recounting an offense, she will say something to the effect of “everyone hates me!” What she’s communicating is that she’s extremely hurt. If I were to react solely to her statement about everyone hating her, I’d likely miss the truth that she’s hurting inside. By asking questions, I’m able to hear what’s happening behind the outburst and get the truth about her.

This is true for all relationships. If we respond without clarifying the content and context, we will often miss the heart of the matter. Good listening behooves us to ask questions like, “tell me more.”

Good listeners act as recording devices.
If you’ve spent any amount of time watching one of the dozens of crime scene television shows likely you’ve seen a crime solved because of a clue seen or heard in the background of a recording. Replaying what you heard the other person say is a great way to clarify what’s being communicated. This might sound something like:

What I heard you say was that you feel disrespected when I ignore you. Is that right?”

One of the best ways that we can love someone is to show him or her that we are truly interested in hearing what is being said. Not what we want to hear, but what is actually spoken.

Good listeners develop and fine tune a third ear. The third ear is the one that listens to what is being said and what is not being said. This is the holy grail of listening: When one is able to know their own and the other’s story (limitations, gifts, abilities, etc), pay attention to the non-verbal cues, and ask questions. Good listeners make for great partners in life.


Samuel Rainey is a professional counselor primarily working with couples, men, and women addressing issues of sexuality, emotional health, relationships, and spirituality. He is the co-Author of So You Want to be a Teenager with Thomas Nelson. He earned his Masters in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, Washington. When he is not roasting coffee, tending to his garden, or playing golf, he blogs about life process, parenting, and relationships at SamuelRainey.com. He can also be found on twitter @SamuelRainey. He and his wife reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee with their four children.

  • Thank you for fleshing out the many nuances of listening we often overlook. I especially liked your example of a “third ear,”listening to both what is being said and what is not being said. As you pointed out, active listening is much more than just being present. Your post is a great reminder of how active listening can positively impact our relationships.

  • Until now, I am aware that I still have to improve in the area of listening, thanks for reminding me again! it’s good to know the components of a Good Listener, it saves us from offenses and it also helps us to be trusted more by our partners.

    • Thanks, Mai! I agree, trust is directly tied into our ability (or inability) to listen. I hope this helps you in your relationships.

  • Ida Peterson

    I am trying to pick-up the traits of a good listner.From what I read:#1 is paying attention, listening with the third ear, paying attention to none verbal cues, or clues, trust, asking questions. I am trusted but I have difficulty trusting others. I enjoyed the feed back in these comments. Love in service Ida

    • Ida, becoming a good listener takes a lifetime of practice. Just last night my wife told me 3 important things to do with my daughter, and I forgot (which means I didn’t actively listen to her requests) 2 of them. Thankfully she was forgiving when I called her to clarify.

      I’d encourage you to do some exploration about the issue of your difficulty trusting others. This will dampen the depth of relationships you build.

  • tennisgal

    Being one of the world’s worst listeners, previously, I would also add to the tips on being a better listener. Focus only on what the other person is saying and forget about your response and your come back statement while they are talking. Train your brain to not think about what you’re going to say back until the person is done saying what they have to say. Then, respond to something about what THEY said, instead of what you might have been planning to say.
    It is a skill that may save a marriage.

  • NIck

    I think there is a fourth component that should be mentioned: Good listeners have a will and a desire to really listen. Most of the time bad listening skills come from an unwillingness to listen. If you don’t feel the person listening is worth your time, or that they must be talking about something that is trivial and will cloud your current train of thought, you will shut down. My wife is a hot spring of verbal communication, and I have thus far shut down when she spoke because I couldn’t handle the volume of information. The real problem lay in that at that moment I always had something else on my mind. I’ve recently made a commitment to remember my priorities and let my wife skip to the front of the thought line when she speaks.

  • Michael McCurdy

    I have discovered that I have been too insecure to listen to people. I have been too self-focused and filled with anxiety about my own life to really care about what others are going through. But I WANT to care! And I feel terrible about not being available for God to use me to minister to others like Christ. The answer, of course, involves a healthy relationship with Christ. As I learn to trust Him with all the things that cause anxiety and walk in obedience, I am able to be a better listener. Finding true rest in our Lord allows us to focus on others without all these other “programs” running in the background.

  • Gloria

    I am finding myself so easily offended by my husband! I usually do the listening, and that’s ok…he is one of the most observant people I know. He loves nature, wildlife, outdoors – and so do I, very much. When I am trying to tell him something, though, he will interrupt like “Look at that!” “Did you see that?”. I know he just wants me not to miss, but it makes me feel like what I say is not important enough to listen to. Then I get hurt and withdraw from the conversation. I need to be able to say something, early on, beforfe I am ‘gone’ in my hurt and have to fight back out of it.

  • Mary

    This is an area where my husband and I have had many conflicts, and I am the guilty party. I want to be a good listener. Like you, I don’t multitask well, and need to make sure I give undivided attention to what he is saying. Too often I find myself “skipping ahead” to my response, or being distracted and lagging behind, thus missing the end of his comments. Thank you for this article.

  • Dan White

    Could not the wife waited the 5 minutes you needed to finish your project? Then you could have given her your full attention and both of you would not have needed to spend the afternoon resolving a problem she created.

    • This would have been great if I had asked her for this. It’s my responsibility to know and to ask for what I need from her. If I expect her to be the one who is doing the work of meeting and managing my expectations, problems happen.

  • Peggy McHugh

    Samuel, Thank you for your wise response to Dan’s comment. It speaks volumes.

  • Connor

    I especially enjoyed this article and have found it hitting close to home. I am defiantly the one at fault when it comes to listening and create the argument in my head before my wife finishes here talk. One of the things you suggested is giving them all your attention and avoiding the creation of defense. How do you recomend starting to learn how to do this? This is my biggest fault and the part where I have to cut my wife off mid-discussion. Stress is being caused because of this.

    • Part of this is a choice in the moment/situation, but the other part of this is a habit. When you live your life out of a place of self-centeredness, it creeps into relationships as well. Defensiveness is sometimes the unconscious reply of our self-centered lives.

      Put into practice ways of serving and giving to others, especially your wife. Secondly, begin journaling your thoughts/defenses and ideas regarding fights and disagreements. Doing this will help you to voice what you need to voice, but not in a disruptive way to your spouse.

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