Active listening has many beneficial effects for both the listener and the speaker. It can de-escalate anger, clear up misunderstandings, strengthen relationships, decrease loneliness, focus attention, and enhance memory. Best of all, there are virtually no harmful side effects.
Active Listening Techniques
Passive listening techniques, such as facing the speaker, making eye contact, and restraining yourself from doing other things while the speaker is communicating, all help a speaker feel listened to. However, there are also several active techniques for helping a speaker feel you have truly heard them and understand what they are saying:
- Paraphrasing is re-stating in your own words what you believe the speaker has said and checking in with them to be sure you got it right.
- Clarifying is asking questions to make sure you really understood what the speaker was trying to communicate.
- Empathizing is focusing on the speaker's feelings regarding what they are communicating.
- Providing feedback means sharing your own thoughts, feelings, and impressions on what the speaker has communicated. It should be immediate, honest, and supportive and even if you disagree, it can be helpful to find at least a kernel of truth in what the other person has said.
Things We Do Instead of Listening
Unfortunately, we have all been guilty of doing other things when we could be listening. Sometimes this is because we are preoccupied or bored and other times this is because we are anxious or uncomfortable with what the speaker is saying. When our attention shifts away from the speaker and back toward ourselves or to something else entirely, the speaker can feel unheard. If you've ever had the experience of hearing someone typing in the background or watching TV while you are talking to them on the phone, you know what this feels like.
Some of the more common barriers to listening include:
- Comparing one's own experiences to what the speaker is communicating.
- Reading between the lines, assuming, or second guessing what the speaker "really means" rather than taking them at face value.
- Formulating and rehearsing your response to the speaker.
- Listening only to parts of the message (the parts that stand out to you) while ignoring other parts. One example is focusing on the aspects that you disagree with and arguing and debating about them.
- Assigning value to what the speaker is saying (right or wrong, good or bad), rather than really trying to understand where they are coming from.
- Daydreaming when something the speaker says triggers a tangential thought or memory.
- Taking everything the speaker says and referring it back to your own experiences.
- Offering advice on how the speaker can “solve” their problem rather than helping the speaker to feel understood.
- Being right. Sometimes we get into the trap of needing to be right rather than really listening to the speaker's message.
- Changing the subject or making a joke.
- Reassuring or placating the speaker instead of becoming fully engaged in listening.
If an important relationship is struggling, try using active listening and see if you notice any beneficial effects. A good book to read about listening (on which much of this article is based) is McKay, Davis, & Fanning's Messages: The Communication Skills Book by New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.
Mental health professionals are trained to help people communicate more effectively and may be of assistance in improving listening skills. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.
Please also visit my website http://www.kctherapist.com/ for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.