Active Listening: The Skill That Makes People Feel Appreciated (and Appreciate You)
Let’s be honest: almost all of us, at least most of the time, prefer it when we’re the ones doing the talking. Sure, your friend or family member may have a funny anecdote to share, but isn’t yours even funnier? And yes, this or that coworker’s thoughts on the project might be worth a moment of your listening, but you can’t wait to share your new initiative, can you? And on it goes.
As long as there is give and take in the course of a conversation, it’s just fine to enjoy it when you’re the one doing the talking. That is, as long as you also do your part when the other person starts talking, and in this case your part is to listen. Not to not talk, but to be effectively listening.
It’s precisely because most people prefer to be the one leading a conversation (and often for said chat to be focused on themselves, too) that practicing active listening is such a critical skill to strengthen. What does it mean to practice active listening? Do those skills come naturally? It turns out that they don’t – at least not for most people. Active listening seems easy in coming-of-age films like Stand By Me, but to properly make people feel heard is something that needs to be worked on and practiced. Let’s get into it!
Active Listening Techniques
If you have ever heard someone described as a great conversationalist, or if you think of a friend or colleague as being easy to talk to, then it’s all but a certainty that said conversation master has honed his or her active listening skills.
You probably won’t have noticed it before, as great active listening is a subtle art, but think about it the next time you find yourself really enjoying a chat. You’ll likely find that the reason it’s working is that you’re really being heard thanks to active listening.
And of course the other party will feel the same way, because just as soon as your turn to talk has come to its logical conclusion, the other person will feel equally appreciated thanks to your active listening skills!
We’ll talk about the specific skills involved and critical active listening techniques in a bit, but let’s start talking about what active listening is not.
Communication Skills: Active Listening Does Not Mean Waiting for Your Turn
For anyone who wants to be a good active listener, it’s imperative to realize that active listening is not the same thing as close listening or critical listening. A courtroom lawyer or debate club member may listen very closely and critically to what another party is saying, for example. But in these cases, the listener is paying attention only inasmuch as they are planning how to counter or even refute the points made by the other person.
This, of course, is the opposite of good active listening.
Active listening also does not mean asking lots of questions, especially when those questions are asked during an interruption. Far too many people make the social mistake of thinking asking questions shows that they are paying attention and interested, whereas in fact these interruptions may only serve to irritate and befuddle your partner in the chat.
Frequent interruptions, even if well intentioned, demonstrate social communication skills that need improving, not those that are well polished. If you are actually paying close attention, the other party will be able to tell, no butting-in required.
And perhaps the cardinal sin of poor active listening is the act of waiting to talk. Even if you don’t interrupt once, you make eye contact, you nod and smile or shake your head and frown as body language makes sense given the tenor of the talk, if you are simply waiting for the other person to be done talking so that you can speak, you are not being an active listener and you are not being polite. Just as someone can tell when an active listener is tuned in, so too can they tell when the other person is merely waiting to get their turn to talk, interruptions or not.
5 Things Active Listeners Will Always Do
There are many factors that go into being a good active listener, but most every one of them can be tucked into one of these five critical active listening techniques.
1. Demonstrate Engagement
Effective listening sometimes begins with body language. Sure, your ears are the most important part of your body when it comes to active listening, but it’s just about every other part of your body that tells the person talking that you’re actually using those ears (and the brain between them, of course).
Because you’re not speaking while you’re actively listening, it really comes down to body language to make sure the other party knows they are being heard. That means great eye contact when merited, but also looking away when doing so will make the speaker more comfortable.
It means an upright posture and an open body (no crossed arms or hunched shoulders, in other words). It means using the head and hands to prompt the speaker to continue. And it means an overall stance that is approachable and without an aggressive or detached bent.
2. Allow for Pauses
Very few people think and speak in an unbroken stream of words, and far fewer still are those who do so without being irritating (and with being worthwhile of long attention given by others). Don’t fill in silences for the speaker unless it’s clear he or she is done talking or if they have asked a question; when they feel the room to pause and think, their thoughts will come together more fully. What they say will be of more value, and you both benefit from that!
3. Re-Engage Mentally
Unless the person to whom you are listening is one of the most interesting people on earth (and even in that case) it’s entirely natural for the mind to wander as another person speaks. It’s no different than your thoughts wandering when you read, write, watch a movie, meditate, and on it goes.
If you find that your mind has wandered, don’t get hung up on the drift. Instead, start to pay close attention again and see if you lost the thread of the chat. If you did, you can own that and ask for a briefing of the last few seconds, and don’t be afraid to use those facial expressions! And even if your mind has not yet wandered, consciously reminding yourself that what you are doing is an active process can help prevent mental drift.
Yes, that’s right, there is a time where interrupting is actually part of good active listening skills, and that’s when you genuinely don’t understand the point the person is trying to make and feel that missing the other person’s point will mean you lose a major part of their message. Think of it as asking for clarification as to what they are already saying, and not ever as asking a leading question, especially one that will lead to your own talking.
Even when the other party is done talking, your job as an active listener is not quite wrapped up and your turn to share your own thoughts has not quite arrived. First, you need to do your best to quickly summarize the main points the other person just made and to ask if you understood correctly.
This will have a three-part effect. First, it ensures you did indeed understand and it gives the opportunity for clarification if needed. Second, it will prove to the other person you were indeed able to listen effectively as you hit their key points. And third, quite often it will help the other person better understand their own points, or even see issues with their thinking that may lead them to reassess something. (In that way, active listening can even be a good technique when you do hope to change someone’s mind.)
The 5 Worst Things to Do if You Want to Be a Good Active Listener
We prefer to focus on the positive things in life, so we’ll keep this part shorter, but there are indeed a few things that are so anathema to good active listening that they merit being touched on. So here are the things good active listeners never do.
Save for asking for clarity as we noted, a good listener just doesn’t interrupt. If you have a thought you just can’t bear the thought of losing, you can politely ask the person to pause for a moment, make the briefest note possible that will jog your memory later, and then re-devote your full attention to the speaker.
2. Use disrespectful body language
From slouching to poor eye contact to fidgeting, to worst of all, using your body to do something totally different (like cleaning or playing a video game, e.g.), the way you use your body says it all when your mouth is saying nothing.
Don’t use body language that can be taken to mean “I don’t care.” Also, do keep in mind that eye contact is not always needed or even good for proper active listening. If your conversation partner shies from extended eye contact, don’t just sit there glaring at them nonetheless – meet the person where they are in terms of eye contact.
3. Filling silences
The only things you should say when a person pauses to think are things along the lines of “take your time” or “please tell me more” or even more directly “I’m listening.” Don’t fill gaps in the conversation left by a person’s pause. You’ll risk derailing the entire talk and leaving the other person feeling unheard and feeling like you were just waiting to talk.
Just like you should not be filling gaps in the conversation or waiting to talk, don’t try to top the person’s statements when they’re done talking. Sometimes, when we swap stories, it’s OK to go back and forth – this can be about workplace drama, youthful indiscretion, sports injuries, and so on, but know the difference between swapping and topping. Also, know that sometimes it’s OK to not have a rejoinder, even if it’s a logical fit. (Often that’s perfect, actually.)
5. Not listening
It might seem basic, but if you accept that active listening is a skill that needs practice, then that practice starts by simply actually paying attention to the person. That means not engaging in another activity, not letting other thoughts crowd your head, and it means not letting other thoughts crowd your head when you should be letting their thoughts in.
Other Ideas for Being a Good Active Listener
As with most things in life, the best active listening to the person speaking comes when the conditions are right. If your partner, friend, relative, or other party asks to talk about something clearly meaningful, don’t engage in the conversation while you are actively shopping for groceries, wrangling a child during bedtime routine, or trying to get some work done. Set aside a time and try to be in a place that will work for a talk and where there will be minimal distractions. This is a basic tenet of those with emotional intelligence.
Once the other person is talking, pay attention not only to the words they say but also to what they are not saying. Being a better listener means paying attention to his or her body language and to any moments where it seems the person may be hesitating to say something. In these instances, you can kindly, and in as few words as possible, make it clear that you are there and ready to listen but also OK if the person wants to not say a certain this or that.
And finally, it’s OK to, at a certain point, advocate for yourself. If it becomes clear that despite your good intentions as an active listener the other person is just going to go right on blathering away endlessly, then at some point you need to politely ask for a chance to speak or to exit the conversation. Being a good listener does not mean being a pushover.
In the End, Good Active Listening Is…
Genuine active listening is all about respect. Whether it’s a therapist listening intently to the concerns her patient is sharing, a dad hearing about his daughter’s struggles in school, or a friend enjoying his buddy’s hilarious tale from a summer trip, good active listening makes the person who is talking feel heard, and thus respected.
That, in turn, will make that person so much more likely to gladly and actively listen to you when it’s your turn to do the talking. That’s not your goal, of course, but being a caring person of intention has its benefits. Sounds like you!