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The Art of Listening: Part 2 The power of being silent

If you read my article The Art of Listening: Part 1 you may have deemed yourself “a terrible listener” or maybe started noting when you and others adopt the 5 poor listening styles.

In Part 2 of this series I aim to enlighten you with some basic active listening techniques to become a more effective listener and ultimately improve your relationships.


1. The power of being SILENT

I recently employed a basic listening exercise with my students which was more powerful than I had intended. I wish I had recorded the discussion that ensued.

Here’s how the activity went. The students came into a room scattered with a set of picture cards which had meaningful word descriptions on them. The task was to choose the card that called to them most. It could be the colours, words, meanings or any other aspect which they related to that prompted them to choose their card.

The students then paired up and were told the ‘speaker’ had exactly two minutes to explain to their ‘listener’ why they had chosen their card. The challenge was, the listener had to do purely that, ONLY listen. They could not interrupt the explanation; not to ask any questions and not even to acknowledge what was said. They had to remain one hundred percent silent. If the speaker had nothing left to say within the two-minute time period, the listener still could not interject. If during this silence the speaker thought of something else to add, they could carry on speaking. After two minutes the roles were reversed.

After these conversations, or rather ‘monologues’ the students were asked to reflect back to their partners the gist of what they had heard. Not knowing that this would be asked of them, some found this challenging. Others found this to be fairly easy, considering that their only task was to simply listen and concentrate.

The myriad of responses that followed in discussion was fascinating.

  • “The silence was awkward.”

  • “I was actually able to concentrate on what was said because I didn’t have to say anything.”

  • “I had the time to get out my thoughts because I wasn’t interrupted.”

  • “I felt uncomfortable with the silences. I’m so not used to it, it felt weird.”

  • “It was awkwardly silent for a bit, but then I was able to think more about what I was saying because the conversation hadn’t moved on.”


I honestly believe that if we practised being silent for two minutes each day, we would become much better listeners.

How many of you are so busy thinking about how to respond in conversation, that you can’t actually concentrate on what you are hearing?

How often do we feel the need to jump in and say something, in the vein of wanting to show we are attentive and actively listening, but being silent would actually be so much more effective?

Stephen Covey profoundly states “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Even when we have altruistic intentions of wanting to show we are paying attention and that we care, when we interject, we miss out on concentrating and truly listening.

On the flip side, being silent enables REAL listening.

Being silent enables REAL concentrating.

Being silent enables the speaker to really think through their thoughts and share what it is they are trying to convey.

What I’ve found in the context of counselling is that whilst silences may feel awkward at times, they are usually followed by intense breakthroughs. It may be on the tip of my tongue to say something and then when I hold back, something is often said that is least expected and at times life changing.

An interjection would have pushed away this breakthrough.


2. Mirroring

Whilst silences can cause breakthroughs, too much of it can also cause relationship breakdown.

Here’s where mirroring can come in to play. Mirroring is interesting as it achieves a similar goal to silences, by enabling the speaker to listen to themselves. Just like a mirror reflects back what is in front of it, this technique involves paraphrasing what was said in a more concise way.

Consider this mirrored dialogue:

  • Person X: “Work has been so draining, I’m burnt out.”

  • Mirror: “You’re run down”

  • Person X: “Yes, I have so much going on all round and can’t switch off”

  • Mirror: “You have no down time”

  • Person X: “I keep snapping at everyone around me because I have no space and am getting into arguments that could be avoided.”

  • Mirror: “Not having space is impacting on your relationships.”

  • Person X: “Yes, I need to find time to be by myself to have more patience for everyone.”

Notice how the dialogue began with being burnt out from work and evolved into the impact on Person X’s relationships and then finding a solution to make more space. Notice, no advice was given!

Of course, this was a construed dialogue and there’s no way in knowing how the mirroring would develop. But what I will say emphatically is that when done well, mirroring has these positive effects:

  • The speaker feels heard and supported. How good does it feel when someone says exactly what we are trying to convey?

  • This subsequently builds rapport.

  • Listening to a reflection of what was said means the speaker is actually able to listen to themselves! This naturally results in further delving into whatever has been verbalised.

  • Further exploration leads to problem solving and as we know the most effective solutions are those which come from within!


3. Listen for tone and body language

Have you ever read a WhatsApp or text message and been deeply offended? How could they write that?

This may have led to a series of misunderstandings and built up angst that sometimes is clarified later on, or in some instances is never explained face to face and leaves us feeling hurt.

The problem with messaging or online communication is that it basically includes a staggering low 7% communication. Referring back to Stephen Covey, in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” he breaks down communication into 40% tone, 53% body language and 7% words.

If this is the case, how important is our tone and body language both in our listening and communicating?!

Some suggestions of how you could positively incorporate these into your listening could include the use of:

  • Eye contact

  • Adopting an open posture

  • Facing the person squarely

  • Listening out for the tone used. Where’s the emphasis?

  • Hear what’s not being said in words


4. Stand in the other person’s shoes

This is perhaps one of the most important points we need to remember when engaging with others.

We are all different.

We all come from different places, have had different experiences and think differently.

If we both stand at a river and wear coloured glasses, you green and me red, we will see the colour of water differently. You will see green and I will see red.

When we listen ‘wearing our own distinct glasses’, by naturally drawing on our own experiences, it is difficult to really understand the other person. When we try to look at life through the speaker’s lenses, we may understand their point of view. We don’t have to agree, but we can better understand them.

If we keep the profound words of Epictetus on the forefront of our minds “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” we not only steer ourselves clear of adopting poor listening styles, but we can proactively become more effective listeners and communicators!


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