As the author of a book about listening, I get a lot of questions from readers about how to improve their listening skills. But the number one question I get isn’t about how to listen better to others — it’s about how they can be heard in conversation and ensure they receive their fair share of listening, too.
Conversations are a give-and-take, where all parties need to feel safe and secure to share their experiences and hear each other out. When a conversation is off-kilter and only one party is able to share their experience, we shift from participating in a dialogue to witnessing a monologue. Unfortunately, we are not always heard by those we care about (friends, family, lovers), or who are in a position of power to help us (a boss, mentor, etc.). When we listen without having our own needs met, we risk becoming listening martyrs — repeatedly putting others’ needs before our own in conversation, which puts our sense of self and connection to others at risk.
How to be heard
To improve your chances of being heard, try these three steps below. Importantly, each step focuses on what *we* can control, rather than trying to change the other person. We know how hard it is to change ourselves (R.I.P. New Year’s Resolutions) — think how much harder it is to try to change someone else! For this reason, it is best to apply those efforts to yourself.
Model the behavior you wish to see. When we practice empathetic listening, we give others the space to be vulnerable and share their needs with us. When we listen not to respond but to understand, people notice, and most will appreciate those efforts and try to return the favor. Consistently practicing empathetic listening — by asking better questions, more inclusively facilitating group conversations, and becoming attuned to others’ latent needs in conversation — can clue in those around you to do the same.
Pick the right company. Sometimes we take our problems, ideas, feelings, or opinions to people who are not willing or able to hear us out. Here, it helps to conduct what I call a relationship audit to get a clear picture of who in your life can really, truly hear you out. You’ll want to consider who is playing the role of taker vs. energizer in your life. As the terms suggest, takers take more from you in conversation than they return, whereas energizers generously leave you uplifted, inspired, motivated, and supported. Chapter 9 of my book includes an exercise to help you conduct a relationship audit and make sense of the relationships in your life.
Ask for what you need. The most direct path to being heard is to communicate our needs clearly and explicitly despite any potential discomfort. Because this step is, for many readers, the hardest to practice, I’m going to unpack exactly what to say to others to ensure your voice — and your needs — are heard.
Ask for what you need
Often, what holds us back from asking for what we need is our own fear of how others will respond. But whether our discomfort stems from our individual temperament, the family dynamics we grew up in, or the cultural and societal expectations put upon us, we can’t let it hold us back. We can’t be heard if we don’t speak up. Here are some pointers to make this process easier.
Prime your conversation partner to listen up. Instead of tucking your need into a sidebar or talking obliquely around it, prepare your conversation partner by providing explicit cues for them to pay attention. For example: Saying, I have some news to share… tells others something important is coming next. Intentionally setting up what’s to come also serves as a helpful binding nudge for you to follow through on what you need to share.
Clearly state your need. Be explicit in surfacing what you need, want, or expect from others. For example, phrases like, I want your opinion on… and I expect your help with… tell others exactly what you are looking for from them. Do your best to be clear and to the point to avoid guesswork on their part. Being indirect can only draw in confusion. If others misinterpret you, correct them.
Avoid qualifiers. Don’t dress up your need with qualifiers (such as: I guess, I think, possibly, maybe) or explanations (such as: because, in case, etc.) — doing so gives others an opening to ignore those needs, only half address them, or even (willfully) misunderstand them. Honor your needs by saying what you need in as few words as possible. Less is more here.
When called for, set a boundary. Sometimes asking for what you need requires setting a boundary. Instituting boundaries means we have reached a limit of some kind, be it emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual. If in order to be heard you must set a boundary, I highly recommend Nedra Tawwab’s easily digestible and actionable Set Boundaries, Find Peace. (Her popular Instagram account is also a treasure trove of boundary-setting techniques.)
If you struggle to set boundaries out of fear of how others will respond or what boundary-setting will “say” about you, understand that how others respond to your boundaries says more about them than it does about you. Sharing our needs with others isn’t selfish or demanding — it is a way to let others into our worlds and invite them to get to know us, with care and self-respect. Reframe how you think about boundary-setting, and remember not to personalize others’ responses. Asking for what you need can be good for all parties.
Each of us carries within us a deep desire and need to be heard and understood by others — to feel accepted, valued, and connected in the relationships in our lives. We can offer this to others by listening with empathy, and to ourselves by authentically sharing our experiences and asking for what we need.
The best way to be heard is to speak up. Don’t leave it to chance (whether others are in a good mood that day, or are naturally empathetic listeners), or let your own discomfort hold you back. Take matters into your own hands — into your own voice — and kindly, confidently, and openly share what you need. With practice, it will get easier. To have fulfilling relationships, we must be able to step into them fully — needs and all.
What tips do you have for being heard? Drop them in the comments below or respond to this email directly.