One of the most powerful experiences humans can have is feeling truly heard and understood. And while this may not seem like it would be difficult or rare, there is more to being a good listener than we might expect. We can all recall times when we have tried to talk about something important and have come away feeling judged, neglected, disrespected, or simply not supported. These experiences sometimes come from ill will on the part of the person we are reaching out to, but far more often are the result of missteps that come from a true desire to be helpful. In order to help bridge gaps that exist between people with every sort of relationship, here is a review of the practice of active listening.
- Eliminate (or at least minimize) distractions. It is hard to focus on the person talking to you if you are near your phone or other things or people vying for your attention.
- Invite the person to share what’s on their mind.
- Don’t interrupt. In addition to leaving the speaker feeling that what they’re saying isn’t that important, it often disrupts their train of thought and makes expressing themselves harder.
- Paraphrase. After the other person finishes expressing a thought, say it back in your own words to show that you’re paying attention and to ensure understanding. Statements like, “It sounds like …” or “What I hear is …” invite the speaker to clarify if you’ve missed something.
- Ask questions. It can be tempting to make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what the other person means or what they want you to focus on. Instead, ask questions to clarify.
- Express empathy. This step can be particularly difficult when you are engaged in a difficult conversation, a disagreement, or an argument, but can be exceptionally powerful. Rather than question or defend against negative feelings the person is expressing, work to validate them. For example, if the person says they are frustrated with you, a response like “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration” rather than (or at least before) communicating whether you think that feeling is justified.
- Use engaged body language. Demonstrate that you are interested by facing the other person, maintaining a relaxed and open posture, making eye contact, and avoiding expressions that might be read as disapproval.
- Avoid judgment. The goal of active listening is to understand and accept the other person’s perspective, even if you disagree. If the other person feels you are not judging what they are saying, they are more likely to be open to you when you have something to express.
- Avoid giving advice. This can be very hard. Remember that problem-solving is more likely to be effective after people understand each other’s perspective. Jumping too quickly into advice-giving can leave the other person feeling as if you don’t have time for them, or as if you are minimizing the energy they have already put into dealing with the situation.
- Take turns. After you’re done, ask the other person if they feel you’ve truly heard them and if it’s okay for you to share your thoughts and feelings. Having been on the receiving end of active listening often leaves the other person more open and better equipped to do the same for you.
It is likely that the concept of active listening is familiar to most people, but engaging in this sort of communication is often lost or neglected. Taking the time and making the effort to truly listen to one another can lead to deeper, more meaningful connections.
Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist