We have all been in those conversations where we don’t quite know what to say – and it shows. If this were The Sims we would be having little negative relationship points signs appear above our heads in those situations. Even if the other person doesn’t outwardly say it, you’ll come across as someone who either doesn’t care or wasn’t listening. But there is an easy solution to this, one that doesn’t require you to actually know what to say in response – active listening.
What is Active Listening?
Communication isn’t just about talking. It is also about listening. That is where active listening comes in to play.
Active listening helps you to be clear about what the other person is saying. It helps you understand the other person’s perspective and it helps you deal with them more effectively. By actively listening, you minimise the chance of a communication breakdown and close any gaps in communication.
It’s called active listening because you are actively, and visibly, involved in listening to the other person. You make an effort to understand and participate in what the other person is saying to you. Most importantly, you understand why they are saying it to you! There are three basic skills you can utilise in active listening: repeating, summarising, and paraphrasing.
Active listening is a very simple technique and one that will help you immensely!
Why is Active Listening important and useful to me?
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say. Saying the wrong thing, or saying nothing at all, can be damaging to relationships. This is particularly true in conversations which are difficult, heated, or awkward. In this situation active listening really shines!
As I said earlier, communication is about talking and listening. Learning how to listen makes responding in a constructive and effective way so much easier!
It is easy to makes assumptions and misinterpretations when talking with other people. It happens all of the time. People often don’t really listen and just hear what they want to hear! This can be especially true with intricate or antagonistic issues. Making these assumptions and going into and leaving conversation with expectations can distort what you think the other person has said.
Perhaps you think you know what the other person is going to say. Perhaps you don’t really understand what the other person is saying and you’re struggling to keep up. Perhaps the other person is bringing you down with negativity so you just tune out.
Dealing with other people is a very important part of human life and the human experience. We are social beings, after all. As such, you will need to deal with all sorts of people over your life. Active listening can help you deal with them. This is principally true when dealing with difficult people or with people who wouldn’t normally be considered difficult but might be having an off day.
‘Difficult people’ covers quite a broad range of people. There are those people who are directly hostile. Those who are passively hostile, sneaking around behind your back. And those who are passive – either keen to try and please everyone or keen to not really give a damn. These people might just be difficult for you, or they might be for everyone. They might only sometimes display this difficult behaviour, otherwise acting without displaying such difficulty. They might be a family member, a friend, a teacher, a colleague, or a stranger.
Chances are that you’ve come across a difficult person in your life. And probably recently!
Active listening can help you deal with these people and defuse them and the situation. It can also help build stronger relationships with every person you come across in your life! Further, it can be an excellent way to practice mindfulness and compassion.
4 ways to Actively Listen
- Non-verbal communication, also known as minimal encouragers.
An easy and natural way to show you are listening is to use non-verbal communication. Making eye contact is a big part of this. Also, try to maintain eye contact for a good portion of any conversation you are having with anyone. It builds trust and shows you are paying attention. Shaking or nodding your head along with what the other person is saying is also an effective minimal encourager.
Minimal encouragers let the other person know you are listening and, well, encourage them to continue. Saying small words and sounds like “yes”, “oh”, “a-huh”, and similar, all work to give this effect.
- Repeating what the other person has said.
When repeating, you are literally saying exactly what the other person has said, adding emphasize to key parts if deemed necessary. This acts as a way to ensure you’ve heard the other person correctly and also helps build rapport in the conversation.
“I think the government have made a mistake.”
“You think the government have made a mistake?”
Just because you are repeating what the other person has said does not need to mean that you agree with what they have said. After they have finished talking you can always voice your opposing view, or voice your agreement if you do agree! Repeating the other person shows you are listening and understood what they were saying. It also allows them to correct you if you weren’t!
- Summarising what the other person has said.
This one is as simple as it sounds also. You literally summarise what the other person has said. Only the main points mind you – no need to include any erroneous detail. Make sure you are concise, particularly if there is a lot to summarise! The other person knows what they said and doesn’t need a blow-by-blow of every word they uttered.
Summarising like this helps make sure you know what they said and once again shows you are paying attention to the other person. Effectively, it also gives you a little more time to think of an appropriate response if you are struggling.
- Paraphrasing key points from what the other person has said.
Similar to summarising but works in a way that you say back to them what they said in the way you understood it. This can be particularly helpful in difficult situations or where it is important you fully understand what the other person is trying to say. If they were at all unclear, it allows them to clarify what they meant.
For example, you could respond with “It sounds like you are disappointed in me because of xyz.” The other person would then be able to agree, or disagree, or clarify what they meant.
You could also say “I think what you’re saying is…” Effectively allowing them to refute or approve your statement.
Basically, paraphrasing gives the other person the opportunity to confirm what they have said. This can be very useful to make sure there are no misunderstandings between the two of you.
When should I use Active Listening?
As you may have thought when reading the above techniques, it would be a pretty odd conversation if you both paraphrased and summarised what the other person was saying. It would also be a bit weird if you did it for every conversation you have!
The trick is to always pay enough attention so that if you find you have to make use of these techniques you are able to. That is why active listening is so potent: it makes you focus more on what the other person is saying, prevent you for interrupting, and ensures you are clear about what the other person means when they talk.
Active listening will close gaps in communication, minimises assumptions that you (or the other person) may make, and reduces the chance of misinterpretations.
I know you are already thinking about how useful active listening can be in conversations that you have!
As mentioned, active listening can be particularly useful when dealing with difficult people in order to help you control the conversation on top of the other bonuses that already come with active listening!
Hopefully, this post was interesting and you’ll find it of use. There really is so much you can write about when discussing active listening, and communication in general. This post summarises nicely the benefits of active listening and I hope you can go forward and make use of the techniques in your future conversations! If you already make use of them, or similar techniques, let me know in the comments below!