Part of being a solid friend is making sure we carve out time to listen to our friends’ stories and experiences.
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. 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
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.
Know your nonverbals
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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!