Active Listening: A Skill that can improve your relationships

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Knowledge Speaks Wisdom Listens - Jimi Hendrix

Why is active listening important?

The ability to listen is such an underrated skill. Many of us think we need to say something impressive and knowledgeable for others to like us. However, the communication skill that is most important to develop and maintain our relationships is the ability to listen.

If you’ve ever spoken to someone who is a great listener, you’ll know why. It feels good to talk to someone who is genuinely interested in what we are saying.

All too often we meet people who have poor listening skills. Have you ever felt that the person you are talking to is just waiting for their turn to talk? Have you been speaking and realised that the other person is distracted, perhaps by looking at their phone? Did they judge you, criticise you or tell you that you’re wrong? How did their approach make you feel?

We have all made some of these listening errors in the past. It’s easy to fall into the habit of focusing on our own thoughts and feelings and forgetting to truly listen to others. The good news is that we can learn to be good listeners. It’s a skill and like any skill the more we practice the better we get at it. Here are some steps to help you develop this valuable skill:

How to be an active listener?

Be present:

Give the speaker your full attention by minimizing distractions and focusing on what they are saying. Put away your phone and avoid interrupting or thinking about your response while they are speaking.

Eye contact is an important part of face-to-face conversation as it shows you are focussed on the person you are listening to. However, too much eye contact can be intimidating or distracting. It’s difficult to get the right balance and what’s right for one person may not be right for someone else. The speaker will look away for a moment if they need a break from eye contact or as they are trying to think. You can use this a cue to look away too but try to appear natural and relaxed as you do so. Aim for what feels comfortable for the both of you.

Don’t interrupt

Being interrupted is frustrating for the other person – it gives the impression that you think you’re more important, or that you don’t have time for what they have to say. If you are naturally a quicker thinker or speaker, force yourself to slow down so that the other person can express themselves. Remember, a pause or a few seconds of silence doesn’t mean that you have to jump in. Letting the other person speak will make it easier for you to understand their message, too.

Even interruptions that respond to something that they’ve said can be distracting if it means the conversation gets side tracked from what they were trying to tell you about. If this does happen, steer the conversation back to “So, you were telling me about…”.

Show that you’re listening:

Use nonverbal cues, such as nodding or leaning slightly towards the speaker, to demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation. Verbal acknowledgments, like “I know what you mean” or “I understand,” can also be helpful if used occasionally and not overused.

Ask open-ended questions:

Encourage the speaker to elaborate on their thoughts by asking open-ended questions, like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What happened next?”

Reflect and paraphrase:

After the speaker has finished expressing their thoughts, restate their main points in your own words to ensure you have understood their message. This not only demonstrates your attentiveness but also allows the speaker to clarify any misinterpretations.

Validate emotions:

Recognize and validate the speaker’s emotions by expressing understanding and empathy. For example, you might say, “That must have been really difficult for you” or “I can see why you felt that way” or “just listening to that makes me feel angry so I can understand how you feel”.

Respond thoughtfully:

Once the speaker has finished sharing their thoughts and you have demonstrated your understanding, offer your response in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

Keep the focus on the speaker’s message and avoid turning the conversation back to yourself.

Be curious (don’t judge or impose your opinions or solutions).:

Your approach should be one of genuine curiosity. Few of us will keep talking about a sensitive topic if we feel judged. Try to stay open minded and resist the temptation to state your own opinion about the topic. Don’t assume that you know what’s going to be said next. Try to understand rather than jumping to a conclusion.

It’s not always easy, but lending a listening, supportive ear can be much more rewarding than telling someone what they should do. When a loved one has problems they probably want to tell you how they’re feeling, and get things off their chest, rather than receive lots of advice about what they should be doing.

In other areas of life too, most people prefer to come to their own solutions. If you really must share your brilliant solution, ask first if they want to hear it – say something like “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”

Examples of active listening in action:

Here are some examples of active listening. The first is a video from a corporate work training video (being able to listen actively is very useful for developing a relationship with colleagues and customers).

The following video compares poor listening (without paraphrasing) with good listening with paraphrasing.

The next video shows a doctor using active listening techniques with one of their patients. They use it to better understand what the problem is and then recommend treatment. Research shows that doctors who use active listening are rated more favourably by their patients. Patients prefer the doctors that listen actively even they make the same recommendations as doctors who don’t actively listen.

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