Are you good at active listening?
Do you often wish you could find someone who would just listen to what you have to say? Really listen to you? If we really want to be heard, we must also learn to hear others.
Would you feel safe pouring out your heart and feelings to someone who clearly is not paying attention to you? Or someone who seems to be reserving judgment, or you fear will share your most vulnerable moments? No, of course not!
“Are you even listening to me?”
Has anyone ever said that to you? Have you asked someone that very question? Whether you’re the one asking, or you’re being asked, it’s a question that’s important when two people are trying to communicate.
Enter the skill of active listening.
Improving your active listening can actually make you less judgmental. When you learn how to actually stop and hear someone, it changes your perspective on why people react the way they do.
After some practice, instead of immediately reacting, jumping to conclusions and assuming that the other person is unreasonable or disrespectful, you'll be better able to stop and just think, "I wonder what's going on with them?"
When you show you are willing to listen to others, really listen to them, it has the happy effect of changing you for the better as well! This is part of building self-awareness and personal development.
Let's take a look at what active listening is, what benefits it provides and how we can all learn to be more engaged, present and mindful listeners.
Active listening was a term first mentioned by American psychologists, Carl R. Rogers and Richard E. Farson, who brought what was an effective counseling technique to the every day person.
They found that there were three useful conditions for successful counseling - empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard.
In other words - trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes, and doing it in a way that made them feel safe and heard, without judgment, resulted in more successful results. Imagine that!
Active listening is now often used in the workplace, where people learn to be more facilitative, encouraging conversation to better understand where someone is coming from, rather than just yelling, blaming and disciplining first. Active listening is a powerful coaching, counseling and general conflict resolution tool.
This is part of being mindful, to be present. Mindful listening is to be actively listening to whoever is talking. It means NOT getting lost in your own thoughts or thinking about what you’re going to say once they are done.
It is actually tuning into what they are sharing, choosing to hear and affirm them regardless of whether you agree or not.
Mindful, active listening is being attentive. It’s focusing on the conversation at hand. It’s a skill that doesn’t usually come automatically as we grow up. Much of the time, it must be learned.
"Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development." - Rogers & Farson
Do you want to brush up on getting your point across? Read this next: 10 Practical Things You Can Do to Improve Your Communication Skills
For example, let’s say Donna and John are having a conversation about their workday while eating dinner.
Donna says, “Wow. Today was tough. The owner came in and watched our performance for what seemed forever. I was on edge all day and now I’m exhausted!”
Jon, who was piling food into his mouth while Donna was sharing, looks up at her and says, “Well, at least you have a boss that cares about production. Mine is a total flake.”
This is an example of non-mindful listening.
John was barely paying attention as Donna shared about her day. Then, he never even affirms her feelings or the kind of rotten day she had. He immediately goes into his own feelings about his day.
What would active listening look like?
“So, hun, how was your day?” Says John, who stops eating for the moment and turns his attention to Donna.
“Wow. Today was tough. The owner came in and watched our performance for what seemed forever. I was on edge all day and now I’m exhausted!”
John puts down his fork. He takes in every word, pauses, and says, “That must have been really stressful. I'm sorry you had to experience that. I bet you're exhausted!”
And that’s it.
That’s all Jon says. He then goes back to eating.
Donna feels affirmed. She feels like her emotions were validated; that she was seen and heard. And that simply feels good.
You can become a wonderful, active listener if you’ll just take the time and practice. Start by learning the basics:
When someone is talking to you, pause for a moment when they finish. Don’t just rush into what you want to say.
Take a slow breath and remind yourself that your job is to pay attention and listen, staying attuned to the present moment.
Before responding, maybe offer your support if the situation calls for it. Ask them how you can best support them.
In the example above, John affirmed and validated Donna’s feelings and left it at that. However, he could have went on to say, “How can I be here for you?” This lets Donna know that she is seen, heard, and she’s talking to someone who has her back!
Using and observing non-verbal behavior and body language is also important when you are trying to improve your active listening skills.
If you are making too much eye contact, or paying too close attention to someone when they feel vulnerable, that might completely freak them out! (Imagine if someone was just staring at you the whole time you spoke about something personal.)
First and foremost, make sure you are having a conversation in an environment where there will be little to no disruption, which could throw everything off. Also, don't try to have this kind of conversation if either of you is very upset, especially with each other! Wait until you've calmed down.
Know when to encourage them. Let the person know that you see them. You hear them. When you’re actively listening to another, use your senses to engage. Make eye contact, as this indicates that you’re genuinely interested.
Nod your head, give an affirming smile, and lean in slightly if you feel led. These actions show the other person that you are being a mindful, active listener rather than being preoccupied with your thoughts or what you’re going to say next.
Say things like,
Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to elaborate on something. They allow for a longer answer than just, 'Yes," or, "No." It's something you say to start a conversation, or keep one going.
Both of these questions allow the person to describe their thoughts in more detail. If you had asked, "Are you mad at Jack?" They can answer with a simple, "Yes" or, "No," and that's the end of it.
Think of open-ended questions like an open door - someone feels welcome to walk through. A closed door tells people not to enter.
Sometimes people don't really understand how to describe what they are feeling. Asking a follow up question to get them to go a little deeper can help both of you understand what they are saying. At the same time, you are showing you are paying attention because you are interested in learning more.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions that help the other person explore their feelings. Most of us have images of a therapist with their note pad and pen asking their client, “And how does that make you feel?”
It may seem sort of cliché, but doing a little probing can be a good thing. It lets the other person know that you’re actively interested and listening. That you’re genuinely trying to understand and empathize with them.
The best active listeners seek to understand where the other person is coming from. If there is something the other person shared with you that didn't make sense, or is sticking out to you, wait for a chance to ask them more about it.
This shows again that you are an active participant in the conversation, and you want to get everything straight.
Paraphrasing is a very important way to show you are listening. Not only are you not repeating what they've said verbatim, you are able to explain it back in a different way, with the same meaning. This shows you are trying to understand and get on the same page as them.
They say, "It's infuriating when my boss talks down to me like that. Why doesn't she see how hard I work?"
You can say, "So, Doreen makes you feel angry when she speaks to you in a condescending way and doesn't give you recognition?"
What is an appropriate reaction to what they are saying? Smiling when they are obviously sad or angry is not a good active listening example! If they are describing something difficult, you can lean in, keeping your face neutral, or show sympathy or empathy.
Give a smile of encouragement if they look like they need one. Show disapproval if they describe someone who was disrespectful. You could even say something like,
They may just need to vent to you, but a good final step in the active listening process is to offer a summary of what they have told you. This can be very prevalent in counseling, especially couples counseling. This is a final step in showing you understand what they have said and that you are trying to get the meaning from it.
"What I'm hearing is that it really hurt your feelings when I laughed at you in front of our friends. You feel that I was not being on your side and you would like me to acknowledge this."
"Listening brings about changes in peoples' attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian." - Rogers & Farson
When active listening works, it:
It can also offer you many different perspectives, now that you are learning how to put yourself in someone else's shoes.
We’re all longing to be seen and heard in a genuine, heartfelt way. When we step up and commit to becoming a more mindful and active listener, we get to help others know that they are seen too.
That their inner world and outer experiences matter. And, that we can hold a safe space for them to have a conversation in a healthy, balanced way.
How would you rate yourself when it comes to active listening? Is there room for improvement?
Editor's note: This article was originally published November 4th, 2020 and has been updated to include more helpful information.
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