Good morning! I’m held up inside on an overcast, rainy Seattle morning which leads me to reflect. Traveling and interacting with others on a deep level always simultaneously makes me feel energized and also restful. I’m here with a short bit about active listening skills, after connecting with a friend who was positig on this Dalai Lama quote;
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
You’ve likely heard the term “active listening;” it’s a buzzword that sounds good but sometimes feels hard to impart any tangible meaning to, so I’m here to clear some of that up, hopefully. I also recognize it is a skill, meaning it can be learned, practiced, and strengthened — being a good listener isn’t just some innate aptitude that those of us who don’t have can throw our hands up and be like, “welp, that’s done then, I guess.” And I also recognize that it can be hard to learn and practice; misstepping can have real consequences and not everyone goes to “therapy school” to learn how to be a better active listener, so there are some hurdles and gates involved in being exposed to the lessons around it and having the time, emotional bandwidth, and environment to practice it in. But we are both here together now so let’s dive in and see what we can gather from this.
Maybe you’ve heard before, some exasperated person in your life, whether it was a partner, colleague, or gym teacher saying, “Hearing isn’t the same as listening.” This is generally because a person can be like, “Did you hear me,” and the fact is we did hear them say something, but were we really listening, because everyone else in the class started doing situps and instead we were still there giggling with our friends (I can still hear the disdain in boomer teachers’ voices accusing me of socializing, the horror)!
Active listening is much the same, taken to a next level, because it’s more like, OK we heard the gym teacher, and listened to understand they were assigning situps, but in active listening we can also notice the exhaustion in their voice and perhaps understand that we’re the cause of that and should stop ruining the poor gym teacher’s day by being ridiculous. And maybe even remembering that during the next gym class, too.
So, active listening generally involves putting conscious effort into conversations or interactions wherein we exert effort to hear what the other person is saying, try to understand it rather than just letting it passively enter our minds, and retain it moving forward. We might try to understand the content of the speaker’s words and message, but also their intent on saying what they say, and the emotion imparted in it.
Active Listening IS NOT:
- Trying to “get the gist” — Listening only to barely understanding doesn’t cover it. Some people listen only to hear a meager summary in order to formulate their own responses. Likewise,
- Waiting for your turn to speak — Sometimes listening to someone else only occurs as someone waits for their opportunity to continue to contribute to conversations. Active listening cannot happen when one is using their brain power to remember the thing they want to say. I understand what it’s like to hold onto my own thought like a quickly unraveling thread and sometimes when it gets to my turn, it’s completely gone, and that’s frustrating. But know you might contribute more to an interaction by actively listening and reflecting rather than saying the thing you’d had stored up, and that thought might soon return to you.
- Exerting bare minimum effort to get in trouble — Yes, this fits with the gym class example. Know that just doing some small efforts to avoid trouble are in and of themselves troublesome. If you find yourself doing this often, it would likely be beneficial to sit with this experience and try to understand better your blocks to actively listening as well as the feared “trouble” you might find yourself in, in order to welcome in interactions you’d prefer in your life. I understand it’s different when being in a captive audience, like in gym class or in a work environment for example, where some of this is inescapable, but here I am more referring to reflection in interpersonal interactions.
- Parroting back — “…I can’t believe that all happened though, I’m feeling so hurt and let down by this work environment and ongoing crap between Lydia and Jamie. Ugh, my boss is so unsupportive. Are you even listening?” “Yeah, you just said your boss is unsupportive.” Doesn’t really cover it, no? It would likely be more successful to reconnect and understand better the aforementioned. “Yes, I’m really sorry that’s happening to you. How can I support you better?” Active listening isn’t just repeating something to prove you’ve just heard it. It’s interacting with another person, their narratives and their complexities.
- Only listening to parts that concern you or your feelings — Sometimes folks can fall into the trap of listening just to hear things that concern them, their role in someone’s life, or something they’re looking for information on or have a feeling about. I’ve experienced this; like discussing my workday when I worked at a college and all the ongoing drama and complexities and being stopped just because I mentioned I went to a coworker’s on-campus housing because they worked in residence life. The person I was talking with only cared that I stopped by there to grab some supplies for event programming that day because my coworker was a man. They cherry picked a thing to care about from this whole conversation because of their own insecurities, and missed the rest of the story and all my feelings about all that had transpired that day. It felt exhausting and I felt ignored and not cared about, and found myself having to take care of their feelings whereas I had hoped to receive support and affirmation about some tough work stuff that had been going on. Such redirections can be hard to deal with. It would likely be more successful to listen actively, reflect, and then discuss later, “Hey, when you said that thing about the apartment stop, it made me feel bad because of xyz. I need some care and affirmation right now.” Or whatever.
Active Listening IS:
- Making eye contact — Show you’re listening by looking at the speaker and offering small body language cues. Nod, smile, look thunderstruck, whatever. Don’t look at a phone, TV, other hot people at the bar, whatever — showing that you are checked in by making eye contact is a good way of communicating respect and attention for the person who is choosing to share with you.
- Offering small verbal affirmations — “Yes. Yeah. Uh huh. No way! They said that?! What?! I gotcha. OK. Makes sense.” etc. Saying some small words here and there makes a person feel like their words are being received and not just floating into the ether. It can also make them affirmed to show approval, affirmation, indignation on their behalf, etc.
- Reflecting on what is said — This is a higher-level skill which shines when practice, and it’s OK to get it wrong here or there (I’m wrong often sometimes! The person will likely correct you). Say they’re like, “And then Joshua told me that I have no right to be there. What?!” You can reply, “That sounds like that’s been really hard for you.” or “He had no right to say that, I would be mad if I was in your shoes.” Or “Wow, that seemed inappropriate. What’s your take on that?” You can offer a reflection or interpretation of what was said and either it will be successful, or it will be clarified and you will have more information on what the speaker is meaning, saying, or feeling.
- Offering summaries to ensure you understood — Sometimes summarizing can be helpful to ensure you are following along and hearing the speaker correctly. This can look like, “It seems like from what you’re saying, that you might be thinking it’s time to apply for a new job. Is that correct?” Or “I’m hearing this relationship ha been really hard on you. How are you feeling about that?” Or “From all this that you’ve said, you despise your bedsheets. Unless there’s something I’m missing?”
- Asking for clarification — Here’s a great active listening skill! You don’t have to understand something 100% all the time or get it right always; you can still be a good active listener and be like, “Hmm, what?!” some of the time. Asking for clarification is important. “What do you mean by that?” “I missed what you meant there, can you say it over?” “Are you saying you want to not have a pet after Buster?” “Did you really just tell me that it’s possible to have ‘too much cheese’ on a grilled cheese? Am I really hearing that correctly?”
- Repeating to show you’re listening or to receive clarification — This is different from parroting. You can say something over and ask for help and clarification to show the speaker that you are listening and want to make sure you get it right. “You just said this is over. Do you mean our relationship?” “I notice you said you don’t like ice cream. Is that correct? In which case what would you prefer we go eat tonight?” “So you’re mad at Gina. How can I help?”
- Asking follow-up questions — Generally asking follow-up questions here and there makes a speaker feel cared about and listened to (pepper the in so as to not play interrogator). “How did that make you feel?” “What was that like for you?” “So what are you going to do now?” “How can I support you through this?”
- Imparting a feeling and receiving clarification — This is a risk but it’s worth taking and can sometimes help to move a conversation to be more meaningful or vulnerable. You can use your empathy, reasoning, and good judgment sometimes to suggest a feeling to receive some clarification on. “When I hear you saying this, you sound really hurt. Is that right?” “Wow, I’d be mad if Matt treated me like that, are you feeling angry too?” “Something like that sounds really hurtful. How are you feeling?
- Asking if a person desires feedback or just support — Bingo. It’s helpful when being a recipient and listening to make space for someone’s experience, yes, but we also want to know how to be successful in these interactions and it is ok to ask. Sometimes people share with you to vent and just get some affirmation and support. Sometimes, a person sharing might really want some feedback on them, or the situation, or some suggestions on what to do next or how to improve things. It’s best to ask so as to know to support the other person in the best way possible.
Hope this helps!