You’ve probably heard the term “active listening” before, but what does it actually mean to be an active listener? It means you listen attentively to understand and respond to what your conversation partner actually says rather than using their speaking time to formulate your responses. It also means you avoid any distractions around you during a conversation.
Read on for additional details about the process of active listening along with several tips to help you become a more active listener.
The Basics of Active Listening
Active listening requires you to focus entirely on your conversation partner without distraction so you can understand what they say — verbally and nonverbally — and then respond thoughtfully. It also requires you to noticeably engage in the discussion so your conversational partner feels that you’re really listening to them.
Most people’s default mode for conversation involves passive listening. While passive listeners respond to their conversation partner, they don’t necessarily focus on or absorb the information that person shares. That makes the person speaking feel like they’re not a priority and what they say doesn’t really matter. You can imagine how this may lead to negative consequences in your relationships.
Active listening involves a more dynamic process. It requires you to not only engage fully in a conversation, but also to empathize with the person speaking. It’s entirely possible that you’ve never considered another method of listening. As essential as listening is to communication, many people overlook it as a communication tool. This is because people tend to focus more on how to transmit information effectively and less on how to receive it effectively.
The good news is everyone can learn to be an active listener. Your daily conversations provide a perfect training ground for you to improve your listening skills. All you need is a little patience and guidance.
Once you start to hone active listening as a tool, you can use it to improve your relationships in all spheres of your life — from professional to romantic. For example, you can use this essential skill to diffuse conflicts, identify problems and work toward effective solutions, and gain the trust and respect of those around you.
Tips for Practicing Active Listening
Learning to become a more active listener takes practice and — you guessed it — active participation in conversations. However, it’s well worth the effort because it will improve the quality of your communication and make you a better conversational partner to others. Here are eight tips to help you practice active listening:
This may seem obvious, but it’s one of the most important steps in practicing active listening. Pay attention to what your conversation partner says. Avoiding distractions can help improve your ability to pay attention because distractions split your focus between your conversation partner and something else. Try keeping your phone on “silent” mode and place it facedown during conversations so the digital world won’t distract you.
Notice Body Language
While it’s important to listen to what your conversational partner says, it’s equally important to look at how they say it and what their body language tells you. This will help you fully understand their message. After all, nonverbal communication represents a huge percentage of the information transmitted between people. Noticing body language allows you to get a better sense of what your conversational partner means as they speak.
Active listeners give their conversation partners the space they need to complete their thoughts. This means not interrupting at the first pause in their speech and instead letting them pause to organize their thoughts as they speak. It also means hearing them out and letting them complete everything they want to say before you respond.
Demonstrate Your Interest
You can show your conversation partner you’re paying attention in a number of ways. Body language, for example, provides a great tool. Use eye contact, keep your body facing the person speaking, and avoid fidgeting. This shows a sharp focus on both the conversation and the speaker. In contrast, if you talk with someone who constantly looks away, angles their body away from you, and seems restless, you won’t feel like they’re engaged in the conversation. In fact, those are pretty clear cues that they don’t want to listen to you.
Refrain From Passing Judgement
Entering a conversation with a closed mind can often lead to an unproductive discussion. If you begin by judging what your conversation partner says, you may interpret their words without truly listening to — or reflecting on — them. It’s especially important to start your conversations with an open mind so you can really consider and potentially learn from the people you’re talking with.
Ask Clarifying Questions
If you don’t understand something another person said, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. This demonstrates that you’re listening and making an effort to fully understand what your conversation partner says. It also shows your desire to respond in a thoughtful way. In addition, asking clarifying questions can help avoid miscommunication and ensure you follow a conversation accurately.
Summarize the Conversation
Summarizing points made by the other person is a great way to make sure you’re both on the same page at the end of a conversation. This strategy also makes it clear to your conversation partner that you heard and understood what they said and you both know the next steps required to move forward. If any uncertainties remain, this is a good time to throw in some of those clarifying questions to help prevent any miscommunication.
While this isn’t strictly a listening tool, you’ll find it goes a long way toward improving your social interactions. Try to understand your conversation partner’s perspective and why they said what they said. Whether you’re in a conflict or trying to help mediate one, empathy is a crucial component of reconciliation.