What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think about social rejection? For some, it could be not being asked by anyone to the high school prom. For others, it might be a recollection of being dumped by a romantic partner. And still others may recall being chosen last for a football team. Regardless of the specific experience, most people have felt rejected at least once in their lives. Feeling rejected is painful and leaves wounds that linger for years. Moreover, remembering these painful experiences leaves a person feeling lonely and isolated.

In an era of advanced physical and mental health care, loneliness is still one of society's most significant ongoing problems. For example, according to a survey of 1,000 North Irish adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in 2022, 28% of adults had felt lonely in the month before the study. Of these, 37% reported that feeling lonely made them worried or anxious, 33% felt ashamed about being lonely, and 45% said they would never admit to feeling this way. In short, more than a quarter of adults had felt lonely in the brief time before the study. Many felt ashamed or unable to talk about it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to loneliness is feeling accepted, loved, and valued, feelings that can arise when someone genuinely listens to us. This view is not new. In 1951, Carl Rogers, one of the noted fathers of modern psychology, described the process that speakers experience when being listened to in an attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental manner. According to Rogers, such listening creates an atmosphere of safety, protection, and acceptance for the speaker. This safe atmosphere frees speakers to express their genuine selves, fostering autonomy and connection with the listener.

We conducted five experiments to test whether feeling listened to when disclosing an experience of social rejection can reduce speakers' loneliness by increasing their autonomy and relatedness. For example, one study took place at a University in the UK with 102 undergraduate students. The study included two parts. In the first part, we asked participants to write about an experience of social rejection. For example, one participant wrote:

...When I was younger and was new to the class, it was very hard to fit in, and the classmates rejected me, made me feel very lonely. I tried to pretend to be someone I wasn't just to try and fit in. I was rejected by a boy I really liked, and he chose my best friend…

After writing about the experience, participants conversed about it for ten minutes with a listener who provided them with either good or moderate-quality listening according to our developed protocol.

 "Good Listening" Behaviors in Our Studies

Good listening included behaviors such as these:

  • constant eye contact
  • facial expressions that convey curiosity and concern
  • an open body posture
  • head-nodding
  • asking open-ended questions to encourage elaboration, and
  • paraphrasing speakers' content.

In the moderate listening condition, the listeners mostly stayed silent.

The findings supported our expectation that good listeners, indeed, can help to alleviate loneliness. Speakers who conversed with a good listener reported higher autonomy—the sense that they could be true to who they are and express themselves honestly, and they felt more related—close and connected—to the listener. These experiences, in turn, accounted for the beneficial effects that good listening had on reducing loneliness. Our findings suggested that both autonomy and relatedness played unique roles in the process of loneliness reduction due to being listened to well.  

We replicated those findings in a follow-up study with 205 Israeli students from two different institutions. This study included a 12-minute conversation via the Zoom platform, and we found that listening could play a beneficial role even in this virtual context.

We believe this project sheds light on the positive power of listening in helping people explore complex emotions. When we listen well, we let our speakers feel that they are accepted and important to us. As a result, they feel safe sharing and exploring in a non-defensive manner their inner world, which ultimately contributes to well-being.

For Further Reading

Itzchakov, G., Weinstein, N., Saluk, D., & Amar, M. (2022). Connection heals wounds: Feeling listened to reduces speakers' loneliness following a social rejection disclosure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 01461672221100369. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221100369

Itzchakov, G., Weinstein, N., Legate, N., & Amar, M. (2020). Can high-quality listening predict lower speakers' prejudiced attitudes? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 91, 104022. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103120303620

Rave, R., Itzchakov, G., Weinstein, N. et al. How to get through hard times: Principals' listening buffers teachers' stress on turnover intention and promotes organizational citizenship behavior. Current Psychology (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-03529-6

Weinstein, N., Itzchakov, G., & Legate, N. (2022). The motivational value of listening during intimate and difficult conversations. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12651

Dvori Saluk is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Haifa, Department of Human Services. Her research focuses on the effects of high-quality listening during disagreements on speakers' basic psychological needs, subjective well-being, intellectual humility, and willingness to help the listener.

Guy Itzchakov is an Associate Professor at the University of Haifa, Department of Human Services. His research focuses on the effects of high-quality listening (attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental) on facilitating a change in emotions, cognitions, and behavior.

Netta Weinstein is a Full Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading. Her research explores the links between interpersonal interactions, motivation, well-being, and behavior.

Moty Amar is an Associate Professor at the Ono Academic College, Israel School of Business. His research focuses on consumer psychology, Marketing, and Listening.