One of my best friends in college was suicidal. I tried to help her, but I couldn’t because I was awful at listening. I tried again and again to help in the only ways I knew how, but I only made her worse.
My friend survived that period of her life because she got help from someone qualified — and crucially, who was better at listening than I was. What I learned was that most people are bad at listening, and good listeners have usually trained specifically in order to be good listeners. It’s not the kind of quality you get by accident.
I never wanted to make those mistakes again. While I didn't want to become a therapist, there was another option for me: a peer support course.
This course taught me everything I had been doing wrong and taught me the three traits of toxic listeners, which is actually most of us. Ultimately, addressing these traits could help you help someone who really needs it.
1. Toxic Listeners Do Not Actively Listen
Recent research by Weger Jr. et al showed that “participants [in the study] who received active listening responses felt more understood than participants who received either advice or simple acknowledgements.”
People love talking but not listening. A bad listener passively absorbs what they’re told before launching into their own unrelated anecdote. This results in the speaker not actually feeling heard or understood at all. At best, it’s a little rude. At worst, you might miss signs of real issues.
A good listener reflects back on what they hear. For example, if I say something like, “I’m been having a tough time at work lately because of all these deadlines,” here’s how bad listeners would respond:
“Keep your chin up, it’ll pass! One time at work my boss really hated me, but I fixed it by making friends with her boss.”
Good listeners, meanwhile, show their understanding by saying something more along the lines of:
“Sorry to hear that. It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed. How have you been feeling about the deadlines?”
By saying “it sounds like,” you put the emphasis back on them. Good listeners don’t try to interpret the speaker’s feelings, but rather reflect back on what they hear. The focus on “feelings” ensures that the speaker knows they’re not being judged for something they ultimately can’t control — their feelings.
When you feel heard, you’re much more likely to open up and share more. And when you share more, you give people the information they need to help you get through whatever you’re experiencing, whether minor or major.
2. Toxic Listeners Give Advice
This was the most counter-intuitive piece of wisdom from the peer support class, and yet it was also the most useful. Psychologists list giving bad advice — self-centered, boastful, or irrelevant advice — as conversational narcissism.
If someone is asking you for advice, that person has something you don’t: the whole story. They know all the players, the feelings, the actions. And they’ve probably already made up their minds. They’re not really asking you for advice. They’re asking you for validation.
Bad listeners don’t realize this, so when they get asked for advice, or even if they don’t get asked, they instantly give their opinion.
The problem is you never have the same knowledge of the situation as the person who’s asking for advice which you’d need to make an informed decision.
Both outcomes of giving advice are bad. If you give someone advice and they don’t take it, you feel wronged and hurt. If you do give them advice and they take it, you’re suddenly responsible for a situation you don’t have a full understanding of.
Good listeners, when asked for advice, reflect the asker’s feelings back to them. This helps the asker process their own feelings, but without putting any pressure on the ultimate decision — which should be up to them.
Giving advice is tempting because it lets you feel like you’re helping. In reality, the best way to help is by helping your friend make the decision that's right for them.
3. Toxic Listeners are Judgemental
This is the hardest one for me because I’m a judgy person.
When my friend began having trouble, I thought she was just after attention. Her dramatic episodes annoyed me. I complained about her to mutual friends, and we agreed she was just trying to provoke a reaction from us. We decided, rather smugly, not to give her the attention she was asking for.
The truth was that she was suffering and she thought we would recognize her self-absorbed Facebook updates and emotional late-night text messages as the cries for help they were. As Lucy Oates writes in her blog post on the subject in HSR Psychology, “[a]s the listener, we should put our own views aside and try not to get distracted by our personal thoughts and feelings.”
I thought the best method to “fix” her was to starve her of the attention she craved. In other words, I didn’t listen to what those calls for help actually said. And I hurt her because of that judgemental decision.
You never know what other people are going through. You don’t know if they’re clinically depressed, or if a pet just died, or if they’re abuse victims. You never know if they’re actually depressed, needing help, and asking for it the only way they know how.
People can appear successful, powerful, invincible. And too often, we feel that gives us permission to judge them. But we never know the whole story.
I still struggle with it — the petty person in me wants to feel superior, at the expense of listening to other people. But I try my hardest to be empathetic, thinking about what they might be going through, and listening to what they say without comment.
Final Thoughts on Being a Better Listener
Toxic is a strong word to define an action like listening, which is something most of us do passively. But if you look up the definition of “toxic,” you’ll learn it’s “very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.” That’s exactly what toxic listening is: listening in a way that causes harm, but not in a way you expect.
Being a good listener is not something that comes naturally to most people. We’re inclined to want to passively listen, to give advice, to judge based on our perspective.
To be a better listener means putting others first, actively hearing what they’re saying, giving them space to make their own decisions, and coming from a place of empathy, not judgment. It’s hard. But it’s worth it.