Listening is arguably the most important element of interpersonal communication. Our ability to listen well impacts the quality of all of our relationships, and not just at home with our family and friends—it can also affect our relationships and interactions on the job, as well as the effectiveness and quality of our work.

Listening is not something that comes naturally or easily for most of us, however; it is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced. Active listening means, as its name suggests, means that we make a conscious and concerted effort to fully engage with the speaker. Active listening is the difference between simply hearing, and listening with the intent to truly understand. It is a subtle but important distinction.

A Few Active Listening Guidelines

Give focused attention – Try to minimize external distractions. Turn down the noise, and put down or step away from what you’re doing if possible. Also, set aside other internal thinking and dialogue. Don’t watch the clock, fidget or go over your to-do list for later.

Maintain eye contact – Direct eye contact shows your attention and intention to listen. This doesn’t mean stare though. Intense eye contact can be intimidating to some—especially the shy or introverted. Be reasonable, but try not to let your eyes wander to whatever is going on around you.

Smile – Facial expressions convey a lot, and a smile is open, inviting, and encouraging.

Watch body language - Be conscious of your body language. Keep an open posture, a non-aggressive stance, face the speaker(s), lean in rather than away, watch your hands, how you tilt your head and your expressions. (For instance, I tend to cross my arms in front of me because it feels comfortable and wrinkle my brow because I’m concentrating, but this body language can appear defensive or critical, so I need to make an effort to soften a bit.) Pay attention to the speaker’s body language as well. It works both ways.

Offer encouragement – Nod occasionally, and offer a judiciously placed ‘Yes,’ “OK”. ‘I understand”, or “Good”. Just be careful not to overdo it or you risk coming across as irritating or rushing. If used sparingly and authentically, encouragement is affirming.

Allow silence – Silence in a conversation can be scary, but a pause allows the speaker to gather their thoughts and for you to digest what is being said.

Don’t interrupt! – It’s disrespectful and distracting.

Reflect back – Restate, but don’t repeat verbatim. Paraphrase what you think the other party is saying with responses such as: “What I’m hearing is…” or “Let me see if I’m following you…” Reflecting back what you’ve heard signals that you’re attempting to understand fully.

Clarify – Ask relevant questions to make sure you understand. Make them open-ended questions, if possible. A “yes” or “no” may confirm, but an explanation offers more information. Probe for feelings. Sometimes the emotions behind the words are more important than the words themselves when someone is seeking to be understood.

Keep an open-mind – Defer judgments, whether agreement or disagreement and don’t make assumptions. Wait until the speaker is finished before formulating opinions. It’s so hard not to think about what you’re going to say next, especially if there’s disagreement, but you miss what is being said if you’re thinking about your own response.

Respond appropriately – Be open and honest in your responses. Share your thoughts, insights and feelings in a clear, but respectful and considerate manner. You can acknowledge the speaker’s concerns and thoughts even if you disagree…especially when you disagree.

Active listening is a model for good communication. Remember that listening is not just to gather information and share ideas, but also to gain perspective and understanding. It takes practice to develop active listening skills, and it’s a habit that has to be reinforced. Remind yourself that the goal of conversation is not merely to trade words, but to truly understand what the other party is saying and to be understood in turn.

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Featured photo credit: Child using a can as telephone via Shutterstock

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