3 Secrets of Better Listening

What are the characteristics of a really good listener? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.


The characteristics of a really good listener will depend on which type of listening the listener is engaged in.

There are 3 distinct kinds of listening:

#1) Active listening
#2) Passive listening
#3) Deep Passive listening

All of these types of listening call for the use of different, highly specific skill sets. If a listener is not aware of the different skill sets, then trouble will be the outcome.

A really good listener will be highly cognizant of the distinct skill sets needed for each type of listening and will be able to use the appropriate skill set. There will be clarity and effectiveness as a result.

Active Listening

Active listening is valuable in situations where the listener is called upon to be present mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is a situation where the listener is being asked for advice, or for help, clarity, or information.

A really good listener knows the most valuable skill the listener must have when actively listening is the ability to ask questions to make sure the listener correctly understands what the person speaking is saying.

It is not helpful to sit still and just listen.

Why not? Because the listener understands there is a possibility that what was heard may not be what the person said or meant to say. But by asking a question to check if what was heard is what the speaker meant to say, then that is truly listening.

Misunderstandings and misinterpretations are corrected by asking questions.

The speaker will feel the listener is actively engaged in wanting to understand them.

Often, people ask for time to talk when they need information, or need help, or are in pain and need to talk to gain emotional support, or want feedback so they may gain clarity on a specific topic or situation. There are myriads of needs that people have that they are hoping to have met by talking.

A really good listener knows that the needs of the speaker will vary and be different according to what the speaker needs or wants right now. By asking questions, the good listener will be able to know what present needs the speaker is hoping to have met by the listener.

Active listening means to engage in a dialogue with the speaker to clarify what the speaker is asking from the listener.

This does not mean the listener is obligated to meet whatever expectations the speaker has. That is why questions are important – the listener can choose to move to the next step or not.

Only if the listener wants to, the next step (if the speaker has not voiced it while speaking), is for the listener to ask, “Is there anything you are asking me to do or say for you? If so, do you want to talk about that?”

If the listener does not want to take that step, the listener can, and will, close the conversation without the offer.

But, if the speaker asks for something, the listener can say, “Let’s talk about that.” This requires the really good listener to put into effect respecting the listener’s, not the speaker’s, personal boundaries.

What about the situation where the speaker wants the listener to sit without saying anything and becomes annoyed when the listener asks questions?

In that situation, understand clearly that the speaker is seeking a passive listener which is an entirely different role than an active listener. A really good listener will be highly aware of that difference.

If a listener is not aware of the distinction, he or she will end up frustrated and confused, and the speaker may end up frustrated and angry. To understand why, see Passive Listening below.

A really good active listener will listen to understand. This means they will listen to understand the speaker while paying attention and listening to themselves.

The really good listener will respect what the listener is willing or not willing to do; how long the listener is willing to listen; and if the listener is willing to listen to the subject (the subject may be too personal and the listener may not want the speaker to later regret sharing such personal information); and the listener checks in internally to how the listener is feeling while listening to that person speaking. At any time when the listener begins to feel stressed, the listener will either discuss the discomfort with the speaker or end the conversation.

So the questions the listener will be asking the speaker will be verbal. The questions the good listener will be asking one’s self will be nonverbal.

Asking questions is the foundation upon which active listening is built.

Passive Listening

Passive listening works in situations where the listener is serving in the specific role of being a receiver or container for the words the speaker is pouring out. On the outside, it looks as if the listener is merely nodding. But the listener is doing more than just nodding. The really good passive listener is serving as a receiver for the speaker’s emotions, and hearing the speaker talk about needs. In this position, the listener is not being asked for help, or for advice, clarity, or information.


The passive listener nods while listening (not speaking) to someone who needs:

To talk themselves into finding solutions to a problem themselves.

To have a person next to them who nods (the listener) while they talk on and on.

To have attention by talking about whatever the person feels like talking about.
The skill sets the passive listener needs are the skills:

To hear and pay attention to what the speaker is saying.

To protect the passive listener’s energy.

To protect the passive listener’s space of personal well-being.

To release the negative emotions the speaker will be releasing such as stress, worries, anxieties, problems, hurt, anger, rage, disappointment, grief, longing – the list is long.

The knowledge of how to set up the space or situation where the passive listener will be in the role of passive listener safely.

Some of the ways the good passive listener protects personal energy and well-being is by nodding when listening to what the speaker is saying; and soon after each nod to release, let go of everything that the passive listener has heard up to the point of that nod. That “hearing field” is cleared right away.

Then the passive listener listens fresh. The clearing is done after each nod again and again. The passive listener is constantly clearing out what the speaker has unloaded – anger, stress, grief, disappointment, deep pain, confusion, whatever emotions are being unloaded at that moment.

If the “hearing field” is not constantly cleared, the energy and information the speaker has sent to the listener by talking will negatively impact on the listener and the listener will lose energy, become stressed or sad, and feel burdened; and what could happen is the listener’s personal boundaries may be lost. The possibility of that happening is high.

The good passive listener knows the importance of protecting personal energy space. This is done by asking the speaker to agree to a set amount of time – a limit – to the number of minutes the speaker can talk uninterrupted – 5 to 20 minutes. No more. Both the listener and speaker can ask for an extension of time, but it is the listener’s right to refuse, or to agree to an extension. Both speaker and listener must agree to the number of times, and when, the listener will be willing to serve in the role of passive listener.

If the speaker wants to have the passive listener’s ear more than once a week for, say as an example, a month or more, the good passive listener will make it known that there will be a switch to the role of active listener, where the skills and rules are different. The good passive listener will not remain in the role of passive listener on an ongoing basis.

There is danger in remaining in the role of passive listener on an ongoing basis. The personal relationship or friendship will disintegrate.


The speaker will feel great after every talk time much like a person would feel after sex or having fun with friends, or being excused from all responsibilities – after all, it is a heady feeling to be heard with full attention. That feeling is so pleasurable the speaker will want more and more of it; and will not be aware of the emotional toll it is taking on the passive listener. Soon, the speaker will come to expect the listener to be available in that position. That expectation may quickly escalate to the feeling of entitlement and then lead to disappointment and anger if the listener does not agree to be in that role on an ongoing basis. So, the good passive listener will set the limit early.

What happens if a speaker wants to continue talking but then asks for advice, information, or help? The wise passive listener will refuse further discussion.


The passive listener released all the information and emotions the speaker sent with each nod. The passive listener no longer has the information needed to serve in the role of active listener which is gathering information and gaining understanding to be able to give advice, help, clarity, or information.

Before entering into a situation of listening, the really good passive listener will clearly know roles. Will it be as an active listener, or as a passive listener? If a person wants advice, information, help, or clarity, then the really good listener will refuse to be in the passive listening role and will take the position of the active listening role.

Deep Passive Listening

This is the deep listening done for someone very close who is terminally ill, or for someone who has lost a loved one through an early death (suicide, illness, accident), or for someone who has lost a loved one through divorce, or an event beyond anyone’s control.

Empathy, actions, and comforting words are essential skills of deep passive listening.

The really good deep passive listener will be there physically and will use touch to comfort (holding hands, an arm around the shoulder, etc.). Actions will be taken, for example: washing the bed sheets for someone who has cancer, running errands, doing chores — these actions are all part of deep passive listening. The focus will be to use words to comfort in many ways; and to be calmly present to soothe the fears of someone precious.

Time will be given as generously as the listener’s heart wants to give. There will be no time limit set, and no limit to the number of times made available to the loved one.

Giving deep passive listening means to take care of one’s emotional self such as the emotion of grief as the listener empathizes with this beloved person. The deep passive listener will never ever blame himself or herself for not being able to do enough. This means that deep passive listening entails dealing with one’s own powerful emotions — grief, confusion, feelings of helplessness, feelings of inadequacy — and showing compassion and empathy for one’s self while going through these powerful emotions.

The really good deep passive listener will use the skills of self-talk and say, “I am making a difference by helping someone I love feel comforted. I am expressing my love and they know it.” And, “What I am doing is giving my best and it is enough. I am enough. My love for that person shows.” And, “I am grateful to myself for being brave.” And, “I am grateful to myself for being strong for someone who so desperately needs my strength at this time.” And, “I love you.”

The really good deep passive listener will take the action of taking care of the physical self. Eating well, getting good sleep. Resting and relaxing. Time for self should not be skimped. The really good deep passive listener does this to be strong for the loved one.

Stress of the day is released before going to bed. Deep breaths are taken in the quiet of the night, and then stress is released with each out breath by saying, “I release my worries and all stress so I may maintain my health for the good of myself and for those I love.” Exercises to release stress are done: stand up, bend over, and while the top of the head is facing the floor, massage the scalp. It will feel good. The exercise of massaging the scalp says, “I love you, I am worthwhile, I count, I release all stress and worries.”

Another exercise to release stress is to stand up and massage the shoulders and the back of the neck. There will be tension there. So keep massaging until the tension is released. The tension can be relieved by saying, “I release my stress and worries so I may maintain my health for the good of myself and for those I love.” The deep passive listener will feel lighter and ready for sleep, and will go to bed feeling loved, worthwhile, and strong for the “self” and for loved ones.

The really good listener will deploy skills that express understanding and love. These are the deepest skills that connects us all in our humanity.

True listening is the finest form of art; the really good listener is an artist.



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