How to be a better ally: improve your listening

by | Jul 12, 2020 | Blog | 5 comments

Have you been searching the terms “allyship” and “being an ally” on Google the past month?

If so, you’re not alone. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute in 3 Myths About Allyship—and What Research Says Instead, Google Trend data shows  that “allyship” has been more popular on the search engine within the last month than any time since Google started collecting data in 2004.  

This is a healthy trend. The two shocking events on Memorial Day – the murder of George Floyd and the Central Park birding incident – sparked an awakening. Millions of white Americans have been asking themselves and others what they can do to support the Black community and other people of color.

One action? Be an ally. Allyship, as defined by the NeuroLeadership Institute, is “being aware of and using one’s advantaged position in a specific domain, to advocate for people in less advantaged positions.”

Being aware means being informed. And many whites are now educating themselves about racism in this country.

Learning from books, websites, podcasts, videos, etc. is important. Yet, if you’re going to advocate for people, you need to spend time talking with people. When you learn from those directly affected by racism, you gain valuable insights. Plus you show your support and build stronger connections.

All of us want to feel heard, seen and connected. This happens during conversations where we talk and listen. 

Yet, listening is a less developed skill than talking for many of us. (It’s difficult to assess how underdeveloped this skill is since there’s minimal research about listening compared to other communication skills.)

Surprising to me, Google Trends even shows a dip in searches for “listening skills” over the past month. And “listening” has never been a popular search in the past 16 years.

However, to serve as an effective ally, it helps to be a good listener. This requires positive intent, awareness, practice and discipline.  

Here are five tips to be a better listener in one-on-one conversations:     

1.Create a welcoming environment. Make it comfortable for someone to talk and open up. For example, put people at ease by choosing a time of day when you’re both able to focus on your conversation and not feel rushed. Recognize you probably will be talking by phone or video chat, rather than in person. For some, looking at someone’s face on video can seem more intimate than being in person, especially if you avoid distractions.

2.Channel Curious George rather than a trial lawyer. Like the children’s character Curious George, you’ll be more effective at listening if you show a desire to learn, are attentive and appreciate curiosity. You don’t want to make anyone feel like they’re on a witness stand defending their life. When you grill someone with questions, the conversation can become superficial without you getting to know the individual.

To go deeper, ask open-ended questions such as “What’s on your mind today?” “Where are you finding joy these days?” “What’s keeping you up at night?” and “What’s getting you up in the morning?” You’ll learn about an individual’s interests and experiences.

Also, experiment with different types of questions, such as fill-in-the-blank or rating questions. Try, “You left your prior job because……?” “On a scale of 1 – 10 with 1 being low and 10 being high, how satisfied are you with the company’s progress on this topic?”

3.Follow the thread rather than cut away. To continue gathering information that provides insights to you and the other person, be sure to continue with the conversation’s thread. Don’t switch the attention to you. For example, if someone tells you, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now,” you could easily respond one of two ways. You could agree and say, “Oh, me too!” Or you could ask, “Oh no, what’s going on?”

The first response shifts the conversation to you. Even though you’re acknowledging a shared experience, you’re hindering your ability to learn more about why your partner feels overwhelmed. Plus you run the risk of appearing selfish because you’re now competing for airtime.

The second response shows you’re being more supportive, encouraging your partner to talk about whatever aspect of the overwhelm is top of mind for them. By elaborating, your partner gets greater clarity about their situation, which is helpful to them. And by improving your understanding, you strengthen your connection with them.       

4. Pause to clarify. If you’re puzzled or unclear about something, stop the conversation and ask for clarification. For instance, say, “I’m not sure I’m following you. Please tell me more?” or “What do you mean by that?”

And certainly pause and ask for a repeat if you encounter technical difficulties and can’t clearly hear what the individual said.

When you ignore the speed bumps in the road, you lose momentum. You’ll miss details or the nuances that add to your understanding. Even worse, you may face miscommunications that lead to problems down the road.

Don’t worry about looking foolish or dim. People generally appreciate your humility. And take advice from the musician Miles Davis who observed, “If you understand everything I said, you’d be me.”

5.Use silence to your advantage. When you’re talking about personal, emotional, and complex topics, expect to encounter some silence. Embrace it, even if you feel awkward. Silence provides useful time for your partner to reflect, compose their thoughts, and consider what to say next. Also by staying silent, you’re showing attentiveness to them while building a stronger relationship. If the silence bothers you, say “hmm” and “uh-huh” every now and then.

Remember, during these conversations, you want to understand the other person and their situation, not persuade them or convince them of anything. By doing so, you’ll be more respectful. And you’ll become a better informed and more compassionate ally.

How are your listening skills?


  1. Suzie Peterson

    Hello Liz,

    Hope all is well with you and your family. Thank you for sharing these 5 listening skills. This is one area that I have continue to work on. I agree with you the use of silence can feel awkward. I learned as a presenter, it is good to pause and let others process what I shared before moving on. We live in such a go, go, go society that pausing and being silent can be hard for some of us.

    Thanks again for sharing! Have a good weekend!

    Best regards,

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Suzie, for taking the time to write and share your experiences. Yes, being silent can be hard for some. Just think about the name of Susan Cain’s bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking!

  3. yupanat

    Thank you very much for your sharing. It reminds me to improve myself and helps me to have better practice.

  4. Brenda Worcester

    Thank you for the sharing that listening is a skill that grows. It is a work in progress.
    I hope to continue this endeavor.

  5. Kike Oladunjoye

    Thanks for sharing the listening skills. Listening is very important in communication.

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