Discover tips and techniques for better listening.
Listening is a passive process of hearing (Nemec, Spagnolo, & Soydon, 2017). For the most part, this process is automatic and doesn't require us to do much of anything. On the other hand, active listening is the active process of listening to understand. It often involves responding both verbally and nonverbally to demonstrate comprehension (Nemec, Spagnolo, & Soydon, 2017). The active listener has a clear goal in mind: to capture both the experience and the perspective of the speaker (Rogers & Roethlisberger, 1991).
Benefits of Active Listening
Active listening is important because we almost always want people to hear and understand what we say. The problem is that communication isn’t always easy. We can easily misunderstand others and leave conversations feeling unheard, invalidated, and misunderstood. But, when we use active listening skills properly, we can connect more effectively.
For example, active listeners are rated as more emotionally in tune (Bodie, Vickery, Cannava, & Jones, 2015) and are thought to be important in restoring relationship injuries (Min, Jung, & Ryu, 2021).
What Makes Active Listening Hard?
Individual characteristics can sometimes make active listening hard. For one, active listening requires self-control. When trying to listen, many of us are instead are mentally assigning judgment to the things we've just heard. We may be asking ourselves, is the speaker right or wrong? Do we have anything to add? What will I say in response to this? We are often reflecting on the content to help us prepare responses.
Many of us also fall into the role of problem-solving as it's common to feel a need to "fix the issue" being shared with us. With the best of intentions, we may connect the speaker's story with an experience of our own and provide input based on the strategies we've found helpful in the past. The problem is, if we are readying our response or coming up with solutions while someone is speaking, we are likely not fully being present and engaged in first listening and understanding the speaker's experience.
Remember, the goal of active listening is to understand. Our rush to share our perspective or resolve an issue can leave the speaker feeling unheard because they haven't yet been able to talk through and process their perspective (Nemec, Spagnolo, & Soydon, 2017). Being an active listener means making the choice not to speak, not to contribute your opinion, not to defend your perspective or belief, and not to offer solutions or suggestions for change in service of first fully understanding the speaker.
How to Listen Actively
There are four key pillars of active listening: preparation, open-ended questions, paraphrasing, and reflecting feelings (Nemec, Spagnolo, & Soydon, 2017).
Preparation means setting yourself up for success by stopping other tasks and making sure you have the mental, physical, and emotional capacity to focus on the conversation.
Open-ended questions are questions that require the speaker to elaborate on her/his perspective and give more than yes/no answers.
Paraphrasing means to restate the speaker's content in your own words. While it may seem redundant and unnecessary, simply repeating back what you've heard in your own words communicates that you're paying attention and understanding.
Reflecting feelings asks you to empathize with the speaker by imagining how you might feel if you were in the speaker's shoes. The more you can name the emotion, the more the speaker is likely to feel acknowledged and validated.
Here's a list of dos and don'ts of active listening based on the pillars above.
Meet your needs before the conversation
Reflect back the content
Empathize with the speaker
Ask open-ended questions
Don't pass judgment judge
Don't be distracted
Don’t be on your phone
Active listening is a critical skill that can help us feel more connected. It can be hard and requires intention and effort but hopefully, these tips can help you build active listening skills in your real life.
Bodie, G. D., Vickery, A. J., Cannava, K., & Jones, S. M. (2015). The role of "active listening" in informal helping conversations: Impact on perceptions of listener helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness and discloser emotional improvement. Western Journal of Communication, 79(2), 151-173. doi:10.1080/10570314.2014.943429
Min, K. S., Jung, J. M., & Ryu, K. (2021). Listen to their heart: Why does active listening enhance customer satisfaction after a service failure?. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 96, 102956. doi:10.1016/j.ijhm.2021.102956
Nemec, P. B., Spagnolo, A. C., & Soydan, A. S. (2017). Can you hear me now? Teaching listening skills. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 40(4), 415–417. doi:10.1037/prj0000287
Rogers, C. R., & Roethlisberger, F. J. (1991). HBR.