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Are you a good listener? Or perhaps here’s a better question: What type of listener are you? That’s right, there are multiple types of listening that you can do, with different situations calling for different approaches. Knowing how to be a good listener, and staying aware of what people in your life need, can help take your social relationships to the next level. When you utilize the proper form of listening given the circumstances, it allows your friends, family, and colleagues to feel seen and understood.

Many people are able to do this automatically, but it never hurts to have a little breakdown of what exactly the different forms of listening are, and when you should employ them in your life.

Say you’re sitting in a lecture or a work meeting, trying to parse through information as you’re being told to create your own thoughts and embrace new ideas. This would be the perfect time for critical listening. “Critical listening is a reasonable and systematic process of evaluating and forming an opinion on what is being heard by analyzing the difference between fact and opinion,” explains board-certified psychiatrist Roxanna Namavar, D.O. “It allows you to assess information in order to form opinions and create plans from what is being said to you.”

Having the skill to work through information and building your own opinions is essential within your work, but may even extend to your personal life if you’re put in a sales situation. “Critical listening is also important when evaluating the claims of someone trying to persuade you of something or sell something to you. Critical thinking will allow you to see through the hype in order to discern your own opinion about what’s being presented to you,” notes licensed marriage and family therapist, Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT.

So, how can you improve your critical listening skills? Namavar suggests starting with determining the difference between fact and opinion, recognizing bias within conversation, and allowing yourself to think outside of the box. “Focus on logic, facts, and reason, and an old trick—write down what you hear,” she notes. This method of listening is all about engaging your intellectual mind. 

There is a time and a place for speaking in conversation, and there is also a time for staying quiet and absorbing what you’re hearing. This is known as passive listening. “Passive listening is the process of listening to information, not reacting to it, and allowing the speaker to speak freely,” explains Namavar. “Passive listening allows you to take in information without being encompassed by it or reacting—a way of preserving a personal boundary or attention.”

If a friend needs to work through a personal problem or simply vent, this is a good opportunity to practice passive listening without interjecting your opinion or thoughts on the matter. “You can become a better passive listener by focusing on what is being said, letting go of personal beliefs or reactions, and accepting your role of listening and not speaking,” she adds.

This form of listening is essential when it comes to creating strong relationships so your friends, partner, or family know that they are being heard and understood. “Everyone wants to hear themselves speak,” she explains. 

This is similar to supportive listening which is essential for allowing people to feel seen and can help to build interpersonal relationships. “With supportive listening, you’re chiming in with statements that feel affirmative and validating of what the person is saying,” explains Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author. “But you’re not speaking in a way that suggests you want to take the floor and interject. You’re instead making periodic interjections or words of validation that are intended to encourage the person to keep sharing more.”

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Much like passive listening, empathetic listening is another example which can help to build strong bonds and allow people in your life to feel heard. However, this form requires you to ask questions that tap into what the person needs from the conversation and, as the name suggests, calls upon empathy. “Empathetic listening is the process of listening and asking meaningful questions that helps develop, enhance, and strengthen human relationships,” says Namavar.

While hopefully you already feel empathy in your daily life, there are some ways that you can tap into and improve this listening form. “You can become a better empathetic listener by letting go of all judgment, providing your undivided attention to the person and what they are saying, being open to everything they are telling you (fact and opinion), trying to resonate with their feelings and experiences, becoming comfortable in silence, and following up with the other person to create a sense of support and connection,” she recommends. 

That means, even if someone is telling you something you don’t necessarily agree with, you approach the conversation with an open mind and allow yourself to embrace their feelings. It’s also important in helping to avoid misunderstandings, by allowing you to see another point of view.

4. Informational listening

If you’ve just started a new job and are looking to absorb a swath of info, as the name suggests, informational listening is going to be your best way to do so. “During this type of listening, the listener concentrates on taking in and retaining new concepts,” explains Leeds. “This requires a high level of cognitive engagement.”

This form of listening will allow you to take in new information while sorting through the importance and cataloging it away for later. “The most suitable settings for informational listening are traditional and nontraditional classroom settings, listening to a nonfiction audiobook, attending a lecture or conference, or receiving training at a new job,” Leeds adds. You can hone in on informational listening by ensuring you’re staying awake and alert, taking notes, and asking clarifying questions to pin down necessary information. 

Active listening is perhaps one of the most common forms of listening when you’re having a conversation and wish to show the person you’re talking to that you’re engaged and alert. “Active listening is the process of listening that relies on the undivided attention of the listener with a conscious effort to listen and understand what is being said, along with retaining the information,” says Namavar.

Improving your active listening skills is quite simple: Utilize body language to display your interest in the conversation, make an effort not to interrupt the person who is speaking, ask questions that are relevant and move the topic along, and stay focused on the conversation at hand. “Active listening is important in every part of life, but it is most applicable to managing problems/conflict and building communication skills with others by demonstrating interest and rapport through engaging in conversation,” they add. 

Reflective listening can be employed to diffuse arguments and may seem similar to empathetic listening. “Reflective listening is where you’re essentially, as the name implies, repeating back what somebody has said,” explains Carmichael. “It can be very affirming for a person to feel heard,” she adds. For example, if you’re in an argument, instead of approaching the conversation with aggression, you can use this method of listening to diffuse tension and show your conversation partner that you hear what they’re saying. “In arguments a lot of time it’s more like a competition to see who can make their point. If you step out of that with reflective listening, it can calm the other person,” she explains.

This form of listening also displays understanding of what the other person is speaking about which can lead to a more well-rounded conversation. “With reflective listening, you’re really pausing in and checking in with them to see if you’ve fully understood what they’ve said before trying to move on to anything else. This can help to establish rapport and make them feel secure and calm, like they don’t have to keep fighting to make their points or worry that they’re competing with you for air time,” says Carmichael.

This may be difficult if you’re a naturally fiery person, but removing yourself from the idea of “winning” an argument and instead focusing on the other person’s point of view will make it easier to relate. Who knows, reflecting their thoughts may even help you come around to their ideas, or allow the other person to see that their argument doesn’t necessarily check out.

Why being a good listener is important.

Being a good listener is undoubtedly important, and in fact, it’s the easiest way to make people feel valued in your social and professional relationships. Good communication is the key to success when it comes to being around other people, and being a good listener creates a strong foundation for trust. “Listening is an important component of being a human—a unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world around us,” note Namavar and Sakopoulo. “Though listening is typically thought of as hearing through your ears, there are many ways to listen through body language, perceiving, and energy. Don’t underestimate the power of listening!”

Working on your listening skills will not only help to strengthen your relationships, but it can also allow you to be more nimble when picking up on new information, and feel comfortable in expressing empathy.

If you’re not naturally a great listener or have a tendency of talking over other people, try to make an effort to ask more questions, offer less interjections, and really hear what your conversational partner is saying. It can make all the difference in building a strong base for relationships and will make people more inclined to listen when it’s your turn to speak.

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