Active listening. You’ve probably heard about word combination before. You’ve probably heard that it is super important to do it. And, if you’re lucky, maybe someone explained what it is about. Or maybe you read about the concept somewhere and thought something like “Yes, that makes sense. I already do that, don’t I?”.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation about this topic at work, where I gave some hints or tips on how to improve this very much needed skill. Before having that conversation and knowing it was coming, I wrote down some bullet points and thought about how to present these tips in a clear way.
A bit after that call an idea came to my mind: why not extending this bunch of bullet points and transform them into a blog post? It might help someone else.
But before jumping into the tips, I feel I should quickly answer the following question: what is active listening?
Active listening is a communication skill that involves fully concentrating on, understanding, and engaging with someone to understand their message, show empathy, and respond thoughtfully.
Or, in simple words: really listening to what the other side is saying and focusing on it.
Now that is clear, let’s jump into my five tips to improve your active listening skills.
1 — Pay full attention to the other person.
The first one is pretty obvious, isn’t it? You simply have to pay attention to what the other person is saying. How else would you be listening to him or her?
Thank you, captain obvious. I’ll jump directly into the next tip. Well… I’d suggest you wait a second.
Paying attention is sometimes easier said than done. I am pretty sure you can think of some situations when you were having a conversation and you mind was somewhere else. You started thinking about the dinner that you had to cook later. Or about that presentation that you had to present to your boss the next day. Or about the plans that you had for the following weekend with your partner. So much for paying full attention to the other person, right?
Don’t get me wrong: it is human to get distracted. It is completely normal and fine to disconnect sometimes. But if you’re trying to be listen actively, you need to focus. The conversation needs your whole attention.
Now, this can be hard. I wrote three practical tips that could help you maintain the focus on the conversation:
- Maintain visual contact with the other person. If your conversation is a remote one, maximize the window to avoid looking at other parts of the screen.
- Stop doing other things. I’ve seen this happening often when having remote calls at work and you probably have too. You notice that the other person is looking a different parts of his or her screen and clearly working on something else. This happens sometimes to me as well, nobody is perfect! Try to avoid landing into that situation by turning off notifications and by keeping your smartphone in your pocket or facing down the table (unless you’re talking through it, that’d be quite mean!). If you’re having the conversation in person, stop any other activity, even if it is something that you can do in “autopilot”, like cooking, cleaning some dishes or folding your clothes after the laundry is done.
- Don’t fidget with stuff. Don’t grab anything from your surroundings. Keep your hands together and on top of the table if there is one or behind your back if you’re having the conversation during a walk. This is a very simple yet powerful trick. Your right hand is making sure that the left one does not go wild, and the left hand does the same for the right one.
2 — Ask open ended questions.
Active listening is about letting the other person speak and creating room for him or her to express his or her own ideas and feelings.
If you go with open-ended questions, you give the other side a chance to continue talking and you keep the focus on them. Always try to stick to what, how, why and other “Wh- questions” instead of direct ones that could be answered with a simple yes or no.
Let me try to give you an example: imagine that you go with a friend to the movies. After the session, you decide to go for a drink together. You sit in the bar and you ask your friend: “Did you like the movie?”
Answer is pretty straightforward: yes or no. Depending on the other person and the relationship between you two, you might be lucky and get something like “Yes, it was good!”, something like “It was okay”, or a straight “No, not really”. But in any case, the question is not really inviting to talk much more about it.
So, what can you do? Well, instead of “Did you like the movie”, you could ask: “What do you think about the movie?” or “What did you like about the movie we just watched?”. Those questions can’t be answered with a monosyllable. They are way more inviting to be followed up with a more elaborate answer than the yes/no one.
I see one exception for this rule, though: you can and should ask a quick yes/no question when you’re trying to summarize what the other person is saying to make sure that you’re getting the idea. Something like: “so, what I am understanding here from what you’re saying is this. Did I get that right?”.
By doing this, you achieve three things: making sure that there is no miscommunication, letting the other person know that you are really listening, and helping the other side organizing their thoughts. These quick summaries also help the conversation move to the next point if it feels a bit stuck. But be careful, as it can be a double-edged sword: if you do it constantly, your conversation partner might feel that you’re in a rush and just want to move on through the topic as soon as possible.
3 — Stay silent.
Another easy one, right? Stay silent as much as you can. Thanks again, captain obvious.
But wait, didn’t we just say that you should be asking open questions? Yes, you should. But that must be taking a minimum part of the conversation. Aside from the questions, try to stay as quiet as possible, just listening. We want to give room to the other person to speak as much as he or she wants.
Staying silent also means avoiding some of the classic “mmmh-hms”, “yes”, “yeah”, “that’s right” and other micro-interruptions every couple of seconds. While all of these are more or less acceptable (although I would not encourage them) in a face to face conversation, it is better to completely avoid them if you’re talking with someone remotely. When you are having a video call with someone, you’re taking turns to speak, because if two people talk at the same time you can’t understand each other at all. These micro-interruptions can let the other person think that you have something to say or comment and you’re waiting and ready to speak. Remember: we want to say as little as possible and not interrupt the other person, so doing this works against our goal.
My tip here: consciously observe yourself next time and check if you’re doing this. If you find out that you’re doing it, try to replace this habit with a simple nod from your head. That shows that you’re listening and understanding, and just that.
Once you have this in mind, changing this behavior is more or less easy an easy thing to do. The most difficult part is making your brain shut up and listen as well. This happens to me from time to time and maybe you can relate: you’re listening to someone and your brain is already formulating an answer. It might be a counter-argument if you are in a discussion. It might be some similar experience that you’d like to share. It might be a comment to reinforce the other one’s opinion. It can be just anything else inside of your head. And here a part of your brain is again more focused on your thoughts than on the other person, which is exactly what we wanted to avoid.
What helps me here: taking some notes if it is appropriate (I would not do that on a private conversation with a friend over coffee, but I might do it at work on a 1:1 conversation), or do some small summaries of what the other person is saying from time to time to keep your brain focused on the conversation.
4 — Avoid relating to the other person’s situation
“I know exactly what you’re talking about. I had the exact same thing two weeks ago, when…”
Does that sound familiar? You’ve probably either said or heard something similar recently. We do it a lot, we can’t help it. And there is nothing wrong with doing that, as it usually helps keeping the conversation flowing… but if you’re really trying to actively listen, this plays against you.
By relating to what your counterpart is saying, you’re shifting the focus to yourself. And remember: this is not what we want. Our goal is to keep the focus on the other person. We’re actively listening, not actively talking.
I know, I know… this is hard to do. It is somehow ingrained in our brain to come up with this kind of answer. My (very) uneducated guess is that we learn this behavior as kids, at least in western societies, as part of our culture. It might also be some way of trying to fit in, wanting to be a part of the group and so on. I don’t really know why we do this, but I see it happening very often.
In any case, we need to put our best efforts to avoid doing this. When a thought comes to your mind, bite your tongue before letting it out. Keep it just for you for a second and think if you’re running into this kind of behavior. Then think if you really want to shift the focus to yourself. If you’re trying to actively listen, you probably don’t want to. The good thing: you can save that thought for later! When (or if) you feel that it is time to switch to your side, or if you are asked to give some piece of advice towards the end of the conversation, you can let this thought out of your brain and share it with the other person. Just don’t do it in the moment when it comes to mind.
5 — Don’t judge or offer solutions.
Listening without judging what we’re hearing can be really challenging. We all have our own ideas and opinions. In many cases, we’re quick to take sides and share our point of view, assuming the other person is seeking it. However, there will be many times when people simply want to share and be heard without being judged.
Let me give you an example: a friend tells you that he or she has taken a tough decision at work and is unsure about the consequences. This person starts telling you about the actions taken and the possible outcomes for him or her. You start forming your opinion and you’re natural, immediate reaction might be saying “I think you did the right/wrong thing!”.
The issue here: we don’t know if the other person really wants to validate that what he or she did was the right thing, or if he or she is simply trying to share some feelings. In the end, the action is taken and not much can be done to change that.
The exact same thing applies with offering solutions. We are always trying to fix things. Take the same example as before: it might be easy to go and say “well, you could do this tomorrow! That will surely help you!”. Don’t do this. Same principle as before: what the other person might be needing right now is not a solution but someone that listens to what he or she has to say.
There’s one exception to this rule, though, one situation when you could give your opinion or try to offer some possible solutions. And you might be asking yourself: how do I know if we are in this situation? Easy answer: if the other person asks directly for an opinion, give it. If he or she asks for some solutions to a problem, share them. Otherwise, don’t.
These are my five tips to improve your active listening skills. Long story short: pay attention, stay silent, ask open questions, don’t try to relate to what the other person is saying and don’t judge or offer solutions.
I would like to point out that these are not just some cheap tricks to make the other person have the perception that you are listening. Doing all of this will actually change the way you listen to and communicate with other people. It might feel a bit strange or forced when you begin applying these tips, but keep trying. Something that helps as well is asking for feedback to the people with whom you have a better relationship. A simple “Hey, can I ask you something? Did you feel listened during our talk? Why/why not?” after a conversation can help you figure out what you might be struggling with in this regard.
I hope you found these tips helpful! I’ll keep practicing myself!