Part of being a solid friend is making sure we carve out time to listen to our friends’ stories and experiences. It goes without saying that being there for a friend when they share something exciting, challenging, or deeply personal can bring us closer together and help our friends feel supported and valued.
But part of being human is that our minds tend to wander, which can obviously make it difficult to take in what a friend is sharing and respond in a way that is understanding, supportive, and empathic. There’s a also big difference between listening and making sure a friend actually feels heard. That’s why taking the time to think about the things we can do to be more present and engaged in our conversations with friends can make all the difference.
Set the stage
There are things we can do to be a better listener before before the conversation even starts. To really listen to our friends, it helps to be in a position where we’re actually able to do so. That means cutting out obvious distractions, like your cell phone (just put it away if you’re usually tempted to use it!) and other electronics. It also might mean limiting background noise or music. Above all, the best thing to do is to know yourself and the kinds of environments where you’re able to focus and be present. It also helps to check in with your friend and make sure that they feel like the setting you’re in works for them.
Know your nonverbals
It never hurts to have a reminder about the importance of nonverbal communication. Listening is an “active” process, but that doesn’t always mean you need to say anything. Making eye contact and being open with your body language (e.g., facing your friend, uncrossing your arms) conveys a lot about your willingness to be present and supportive. As much as possible, it also helps to keep fidgeting and restlessness at bay. Even though this can sometimes happen when we’re feeling anxious or even moved by what a friend is sharing, it often comes across as dismissive, or as boredom.
Nonverbal communication can also involve reaching out, quite literally, when a friend is sharing something difficult, personal, or moving. An appropriately timed hand hold, nod, or kleenex can show your friend that you are listening and are affected by what they are going through.
Keep yourself in check
When you want to listen to and support a friend, it’s easy to start thinking about all of the helpful or supportive things you can share. The problem is, when you’re caught up “in your head” in this way, you might miss out on important details. And by the time you’re actually able to respond, the comment might not be relevant anymore, which can make your friend feel like you weren’t listening. What’s more, even if it is the perfectly timed comment, thinking about what you are going to say can make it harder to monitor your nonverbal behaviour and show that you’re really engaged.
It can also be tempting to jump in with a story about your own life or experience. This makes sense. Friendships are all about a give-and-take and drawing on your own experience can be a way of commiserating and showing your friend that you relate to what they’re going through. There are definitely times when this is helpful. But it helps to take a second and think about the reasons why you want to jump in. Is it to bring you closer and make your friend feel supported? Or are you looking for some space in the conversation or support yourself?
Just because you want to monitor your behavior doesn’t mean that you have to be a passive observer. There are a few ways that jumping into the conversation can communicate that you are actively listening and being supportive. Reflecting a friend’s thoughts or feelings (e.g., “You must have been so upset”) back to them can be an important way of showing that you’re paying attention to their story and personal experience. It can also help to normalize their experience (e.g., “Of course you felt frustrated”, “Anyone would feel that way”), which can be very validating.
Asking questions like, “What happened next?” or “What was that like for you?” can also show your friend you’re engaged in the story they’re telling and and that you care about their perspective or take on things. It’s also a great way to make sure your reflections are accurate. Following up a comment or observation with “Did I get that right?” can help you make sure you really understand your friend’s experience and come across as supportive instead of intrusive or out of touch. This is especially helpful before jumping in and offering any kind of advice. Ultimately, the most important question to ask is about the kind of support your friend is actually looking for, whether it’s a listening ear, some sound advice, or just a hug.
Know when you’re not ready
No matter how motivated you are to help, there will be times when you’re just not in a position to listen. Maybe you’re preoccupied with something big that’s happening in your own life. Or maybe the setting just isn’t right. An important part of listening is knowing when you just aren’t able to. The best thing you can do is to recognize when this is happening and suggest that you pick the conversation back up another time. Make it clear that this has nothing to do with your willingness to support your friend (it’s just the opposite!). And remember to actually revisit the conversation at a time and place that works for both of you.
Ultimately, being conscientious and reliable is one of the best ways to show your friend that they can turn to you when they need a listening ear. It also makes it more likely that you’ll have someone to turn to when you’re the one looking for support or a sounding board.