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Life 101: How to Be a Good Listener

Life 101 How to Be a Good Listener
Listening is more than just not talking while someone else speaks—it’s a way to demonstrate both interest and respect in another person’s lived experience.
By: Danna Lorch

Life 101 is a new monthly series delving into timely real-world topics with the help of Endicott College faculty expertise. This is the third in the series.

Listening is more than just not talking while someone else speaks—it’s a way to demonstrate both interest and respect in another person’s lived experience. Listening is about showing up for those who matter, whether it’s a roommate needing to unload, a potential manager, or your aging grandparent. Listening is also an art. Here’s how to master it.

Focus on your body language. Eliminate outside distractions.

Looking up from TikTok and making eye contact is the first step. In fact, the 7-38-55 Rule by Dr. Albert Mehrabian—arguably the best behavioral psychology study on nonverbal communication—suggests that 55% of active listening is communicated through body language, while only 7% of communication happens verbally.

Michael Kilburn, Director of the Center for Oral History and Professor of Political Science at Endicott, agrees that one of the first ways to build trust as a listener is through body language.

“When actively listening, you need to be fully present with no distractions and maintain eye contact,” he said. “If you can do that, you’re signaling empathy and making a real human connection with the speaker.”

Ask questions. Embrace silence.

Despite the name, listening is just as important as speaking in oral history. For that very reason, the title of the Oral History Association’s journal is Words and Silences. Kilburn and his colleagues have interviewed individuals for the past decade and recorded their first-person accounts about important, sometimes traumatic, historical moments. They have also trained students and community members to do the same, widely consulted on the topic, and promoted oral history as a tool.

This means that Kilburn often participates in difficult conversations. The best way to begin one, he believes, is to establish a connection and an empathetic rapport and ask open-ended questions.

“You don’t ask the question to get an answer, but to signal your engagement and respect,” he said. “Asking questions also keeps the conversation going.”

Kilburn cautioned that though silence can feel awkward, it is essential in allowing the person you are listening to the breathing space to gather their thoughts or the courage to share sensitive details. “Don’t jump in to redirect or add your own narrative,” he said. “If you’ve established a proper connection, then they are going to want to share with you.”

Once they are done speaking, take a moment to pause, then ask a thoughtful follow-up question in response demonstrating that you have heard them and are curious to learn more. 

For example, it’s nearly impossible to get an offer in a job interview setting if you don’t ask your potential employer questions about the company culture or the available position. Not asking a question in many contexts like that one conveys disinterest or boredom. “Asking a question is a sign of strength and engagement,” Kilburn said. “It’s never a sign of weakness.”

Kilburn believes that oral history is not just a research methodology but also a useful form of engaged listening and deep communication that can improve relationships, facilitate networking, and create opportunities and connections.

Try listening in a different way.

Endicott English major Priscilla Miller ’24 has written a lot of poetry. It’s how she processes thoughts and expresses herself. Now, through an internship at the Center for Belonging, she is helping to expand the space of diversity by developing Endicott Voices, an online platform where students can share their true selves through literary mediums and feel heard by their peers.

Miller points out that there are other powerful ways to listen to someone that transcends oral conversations. You can also try reading something they’ve written or listening to a song that expresses how they are feeling at the moment.

“People get scared, from the time they are kids, to speak up and maybe say the wrong thing,” Miller said. “To be a good listener involves encouraging people to feel safe with you no matter what they say.” Or the mode in which they want to say it.

At the end of the day, everyone needs and wants to be heard. From the guy sitting next to you on the plane to your colleagues, child, or friend, it feels meaningful to be able to truly listen to those around you.