Communication is one of the most important skills in any relationship, but communicating effectively is often easier said than done. It can be hard to communicate well when you’re distracted or focused on something else, or when you’re busy thinking of what you’re going to say next. Learning how to be a better listener can help improve all of your relationships, from coworkers to neighbors, to friends and loved ones.
One of the most crucial pieces of effective communication is listening well. You might think of listening as something that you do automatically, but active listening is very different from passive listening. Showing the person or people that you’re talking with that you’re listening goes a long way toward communicating well.
Ineffective listening can lead to misunderstandings or even conflict, and it can damage the level of closeness in your relationships. Think about it – if you’re constantly trying to pour your heart out to someone, it probably feels pretty terrible to have them barely respond or misunderstand what you’re saying all the time. Working on active listening skills can help you become a better listener and communicator.
What is active listening?
Active listening is a communication skill that takes time and practice to learn. Active listening, unlike passive listening, demonstrates to the speaker that you’re fully present in the conversation and engaged. When you’re listening actively, you’re not just trying to hear what the other person is saying. You’re trying to understand the meaning behind their words and show the person you’re talking to that you’re fully immersed in what they’re saying.
If you’re speaking and the person you’re talking to is listening actively, it helps you feel understood, validated, and valued. This can build closeness and intimacy in relationships, which are an important part of a fulfilling life.
Here are 5 ways to improve your listening skills to become a better listener:
Stay focused on the present
It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re talking to someone. There’s always so much to do, and we often think that we’re better multitaskers than we actually are. If you’re trying to finish off that last email, thinking of what you need to buy at the grocery store, or worrying about your to-do list, you won’t be able to fully absorb a conversation with someone else.
You might be able to get away with small talk while being focused on something else, but deep personal conversations require all parties to be focused on what is being said in the present moment. When you feel your thoughts drifting during a conversation, direct them back to the conversation you’re having. Try not to judge yourself, because it happens to everyone. Just kindly redirect your attention back to what’s being said, and focus on that.
We live in a distracting world, and it’s almost second nature to get distracted during conversations. Do what you can to minimize distractions during important conversations. Turn off the TV, pause the music, Put your phone away, and make sure the ringer isn’t on so you can just focus on what you’re talking about.
Another issue that people often run into when they’re communicating is missing out on the conversation by trying to think of what they’re going to say in response. Spending too much time trying to think of what you’re going to say next makes you miss out on what the other person is saying. Being too focused on your end of the conversation doesn’t actually help the other person feel heard and validated. It’s okay to take a pause if you need to gather your thoughts before you respond.
Repeat what they’re saying back to you
You can show that you’re listening and absorbing the information from the conversation by repeating what’s been said already. You might feel a little silly doing this, but it’s actually a great way to show the other person that you’re hearing what they’re saying. Using their words is a strong signal to them that you’re listening to what they’re saying and understand their meaning.
Sometimes you might feel like you want to put what they’re saying in your own words to make sure you understand what they’re saying. Try to repeat their language back to them as much as possible, and then let them know that you’re going to put it into your own words to make sure you get what they are communicating.
Remember body language
Speaking isn’t the only way we communicate. Body language and other non-verbal ways of communicating all give us information that can help increase our understanding. Is their body posture tense and tight? Are they speaking quickly or is their voice shaking? What do their facial expressions show?
Your body language can also communicate to the other person that you’re listening. Try to make eye contact and keep your body language open instead of crossing your arms or closing yourself off. Try leaning into the conversation, nodding or shaking your head, and keeping your facial expressions in mind to help communicate nonverbally that you’re listening.
Another way to show that you’re listening is to ask questions. It’s okay to ask any questions but try asking questions that are more open-ended versus yes or no questions. More open-ended questions will demonstrate to the person you’re talking to that you’re interested in the conversation and help keep the conversation going.
It’s important to try not to be judgmental when you’re talking to someone, and to express empathy when you can, so do your best to make sure any questions you ask don’t show any judgment or blame. It’s not very encouraging to try to talk to someone about something important and then feel like you’re being judged or blamed. Keeping your judgments in check and showing compassion go a long way toward building trust.