When sitting face-to-face in conversation with someone—a friend, child, partner, or work colleague—how frequently are you actually thinking about nothing else other than the words that are coming out of the other person's mouth? Probably not too often. And you are not alone.
Research shows that only about 10 percent of us listen effectively. We are so distracted by the cacophony of dings and tweets from our smartphones, not to mention our ever-growing to-do lists, that we struggle to focus and listen when people talk to us. And if we're not distracted by technology, our own thoughts can keep us from listening to another person. We often think that we are listening but we're actually just considering how to jump in to tell our own story, offer advice, or even make a judgment—in other words, we are not listening to understand, but rather to reply.
Active listening is an essential skill and one of the best ways to connect with another person. The good news is that it is a skill that can be improved with some effort. It also bears noting that there's a distinct difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a physiological act; listening involves our ability to unpack the meaning of words, and the silences in between.
Dutch writer and professor Henri Nouwen once wrote:
"Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond...The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends."
Why be an active listener?
Research has found that active listening helps us focus on understanding others and also improves our relationships by promoting trust, reducing conflict, and increasing our ability to motivate and inspire those with whom we're communicating. Listening to people's stories, along with sharing our own, can prompt us to put our attention into another person's world, which cultivates connection.
There are a variety of ways we can become better listeners. Here are just 5:
The following exercise takes only four minutes, but it will prepare you for what active listening feels like so you can put it into action in your everyday encounters: Find a willing participant. Then face each other with no distractions other than a watch or a timer. For two minutes, one of you will speak, answering a prompt while the other listens. If you're the listener, do not respond at all during the two minutes, but feel free to use facial expressions or nod your head while listening. The idea is to listen to the words for the sake of listening, not for the sake of replying. Then, switch roles for another two minutes. The prompt to use in the exercise: How are you?
2. Start from a place of open-mindedness and acceptance.
Many of us routinely judge what others say and think about what advice to offer as we hear them speak. Avoiding these patterns will enable you to focus more on what the person is saying, and less on your own interpretation. Before entering into a conversation, ask yourself the following questions:
3. Be attentive but relax your gaze.
The idea behind active listening is not to strain your eyes or concentrate too hard, but to be aware of the speaker in a natural and focused way. It's best to block out distractions—surrounding sounds and activities—that might otherwise grab your attention. If someone's speech pattern or accent starts to catch your attention, bring your focus back to the words themselves.
4. Listen to both the words and the silence in between.
Most of us are uncomfortable with pauses and what we may consider awkward silences. But in those pauses we can reflect on the meaning of what a person has just said. Try to keep your mind from wandering during those moments of silence; there may be significance behind the pause itself.
5. Ask open-ended questions.
When it feels appropriate to engage in a response, ask questions that are open-ended, such as: What was that like? and How did that feel? It will make for a better dialogue and give you the chance to continue gaining information.
Everyone has something to say, a story to tell, and words we can learn from. I encourage you to listen—really listen—to those around you, whether the speaker is someone you know well or a new personal or professional acquaintance. You never know where someone else’s words may lead you.