Have you ever talked with a friend, partner, or manager and felt they weren’t listening? Maybe they were fidgeting with their phone or staring into the distance.
You likely felt less motivated to share after witnessing this behavior. When we get the sense that we’re not being listened to, it can feel like the person doesn’t care about us. And when we disengage when talking with others, we may be closing ourselves off to more meaningful, intimate relationships.
But you may have been a bad listener, too. Most of us feel overwhelmed with modern distractions and daily stressors, finding it challenging to dedicate our full attention to effective listening.
Learning the art of active listening can help us deepen our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. We’ll discuss the importance of practicing this competency and outline tips for improving your listening skills.
What are listening skills?
Listening skills are what we practice doing during conversations to retain information and thoughtfully respond. Many types of listening skills exist, from remembering facts from an exchange to improving body language to stay focused.
Many kinds of listening exist, each with skills to make them more effective in different situations. Here are three of the most common ones:
- Empathic: Understanding another person’s experience and point of view requires empathic listening. While listening to the speaker’s feelings, imagine yourself in their shoes or think back to a similar experience. This type of listening helps us keep an open mind and work past our biases.
- Critical: Resolving a conflict or complex problem requires critical listening. We’ll use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to analyze the main points, see the bigger picture, and consider the best solution. These skills are particularly valuable in the workplace.
- Discriminative: Recognizing nonverbal communication like someone’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and other mannerisms, is discriminative listening. Learning to interpret these signs is key to picking up on subtleties and reading between the lines.
Practicing our listening skills is the key to effective communication. When we don’t pay attention, we might miss someone’s point, leading to assumptions, misunderstandings, and poor problem-solving.
What is active listening?
Active listening is when we work to understand and retain the content of the message conveyed. We’re actively participating in the listening process. Regardless of what type of listening we’re employing, remaining attentive to the person speaking will improve our focus, understanding, and engagement.
Here are three examples of scenarios where you might employ active listening:
- You’re working on a presentation with a few team members. Everyone turns off their phone and puts it out of sight. You all make eye contact often, ask thoughtful follow-up questions, and respectfully debate solutions to any problems.
- You’re frustrated about the division of labor at home. While you express your frustrations, your partner or roommate asks clarifying questions to understand your position better, share their thoughts, and point their body toward you with open, relaxed arms to indicate their openness to this discussion.
- You meet for coffee with a friend after a tough day at work. As you explain a problem you’re having with a coworker, they ask thoughtful, open-ended questions (ones that can’t be answered “yes” or “no”) to get detailed answers from you. They also summarize what you’ve said to ensure they understand your experience to better offer advice or support.
8 ways to improve your active listening skills
Actively listening to your friends, family, and coworkers shows you care — and helps you get more out of each conversation.
Plus, you’d be surprised how much easier resolving conflict is when you slow down and focus on what the person’s saying instead of what you want to say next. Instead of interrupting or repeating yourself, take the time to reflect on their words.
When you’re trying to resolve conflict at work by convincing someone your way is right, you might not take the time to listen to their ideas. Odds are they’ve thought of something you haven’t, so make sure you give their suggestions a chance.
Here are eight ways to improve your active listening skills:
1. Provide eye contact
Maintaining eye contact might feel intimidating, but getting past the discomfort has enormous benefits. Looking people in the eye activates the limbic mirror system, creating an understanding between the other person and us because our brain mirrors the neurons going off in their brain.
If their eyes communicate contentment, we feel content. If they express sadness, we feel sad. And when we share an emotional state with another person, our connection and empathy for one another deepen.
2. Ask questions
Asking questions shows you want to hear more about the person’s experience and gives you more information to construct a thoughtful response. Open-ended questions are best so you gain detailed answers instead of a “yes” or “no” that shuts down the conversation.
Different questions serve different purposes, like helping us solve a problem, directing the flow of the conversation, or reaching closure.
Here are some standard questions worth adding to your repertoire:
- What worries you about this situation?
- Why does this matter to you?
- What would improve if you had extra time to work on this?
- What can I do to help?
- If you could do it over, how would you change your approach?
- What have you learned from this?
3. Pay attention to non-verbal cues
Learning to read body language, voice tone, eye contact, and facial expressions is essential to understanding the more understated parts of a conversation. We can adjust our approach to ease hostility, accommodate nerves, or cheer someone up. Attentive, open nonverbal cues also show we’re listening to our audience.
4. Avoid judging
Non-judgemental listening helps us empathize with the other person and makes them feel safe to share. We close ourselves off when we enter a conversation with preconceived notions, so keep an open mind and foster compassion to make the person feel validated.
5. Don’t interrupt
When we talk less and listen more, we show we’re not distracted thinking about ourselves. We’re also giving the other person room to think so they can express themselves without interruptions.
Be patient and wait for your turn so your audience can finish their thoughts. This is especially important when discussing an issue — you can’t solve a problem if you haven’t gained all relevant information.
Summarizing what the speaker said is an excellent way to show you’re listening. Here are a few examples:
- “You’re saying if you had an extra hour to exercise, you’d feel less stress at work?”
- “You’re upset because when I don’t say ‘Thank you’ you feel like I don’t notice your efforts?”
- “You think the best organic growth strategy is diversifying our social media tactics?”
7. Share similar experiences
Sharing similar experiences shows vulnerability and compassion and creates a common bond. We feel less judged and more willing to trust those with similar experiences.
When sharing a personal example to relate to your audience, make sure you don’t hijack the conversation. Explain how the story relates to what they’ve said and quickly turn the conversation back to them. Here are a few ways to do this:
- “I can relate — returning to work as a new mom was so difficult for me. I also felt nervous leaving my son in daycare. But I’m sure you’ll get in a groove quickly, and I’m happy to help wherever possible.”
- “I was in the same boat last year, having to let people go several times. It’s never easy delivering that kind of news, but you’re so kind and articulate — I have no doubt you’ll handle it well.”
- “When I started my first job, I was so nervous. You’re more than qualified, so I’m sure you’ll settle in just fine!”
- “I’ve been to Paris as well. Knowing how much you love great food, you’ll have a fantastic trip.”
8. Provide feedback
Verbal feedback is an easy way to show you’re listening. If someone’s sharing happy news, validate their excitement with something like “That’s so exciting, you deserve it!” If they’re sharing something challenging, acknowledge their struggle by telling them, “That must be so difficult,” or “What a heavy experience, that’s a lot to take on.”
Becoming the best conversation partner
Actively listening improves conversations for all parties. You’ll retain important information and build trusting relationships with those around you, and they’ll feel cared for and heard.
You’re also setting an example for those around you. Once you put your active listening skills into practice, your family, friends, and coworkers may start listening more closely to what you have to say. When you give others the space to express themselves, they’ll want to do the same for you.