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Body Language

Active Listening Is a Key to Great Interactions

Go beyond your ears and really hear what someone says

Effective interactions with others require actively listening to what others say. Your ears hear the sounds and send them to your brain, but it’s your mind that makes sense of the noise. To really be a good listener, and to help your brain hear the whole message, try these action-oriented strategies to improve your listening.

1. Look at the other person: Our faces automatically react to the emotions we feel. Our eyes widen if we become anxious, or our lips turn downward if we are unhappy or sad. The first secret to really listening is to see what clues the other person sends through facial and body language. Use what your eyes see in to help your ears listen.

2. Check out the other person’s feelings: Empathy can be tricky. Miscommunication can easily happen if you aren’t reading the other person’s emotions as a part of the message—but don’t assume you have it right. Reflect back what you think the other person might be feeling, using a disarming phrase like “It seems like you might be feeling unhappy. Is that right, or if not, help me understand what you’re feeling.” Reflecting feelings opens others up if done in soft terms.

3. Use open-ended questions to better understand: We all know to ask questions, but the art of asking a good question is in the way you say it. Close-ended questions require a yes/no answer, or telegraph what you want the other person to say. Open-ended questions give the other person the chance to explain things, to give lots of information. Try “What can you tell me about that?” or “What are some reasons why you’re so happy?”

4. Ask permission if you have something to ask, or to tell, the other person: Even though it seems like quite a lot of work, asking permission before sharing something is a great way to show your listening. The other person will know you want them to pay attention, and that you’ve given them a choice—it shares the power in the interaction so telling someone something is a more balanced exchange. Some great permission requests are “Is it OK if I tell you how I’ve been feeling about our relationship?” or “I saw something on Psychology Today’s website about that, can I tell you about the blog I read?”

5. Reflect what you think the other person meant: Be active in listening by giving the other person an opportunity to clarify what you thought they said. All of us can mistakenly interpret another’s message, so reflecting what you understood someone to mean is a great way to keep both of you on the same page. Try these phrases to open up a dialog about what you both are talking about—“Sometimes I can misunderstand what you mean. Is it OK if I tell you how I took what you just said, and can you help me understand what you meant if I didn’t hear you correctly?”

Participating in an interaction means being active. Sometimes we might feel like the effort isn’t worth it—but if we put in the work by actively listening, we can avoid more work later (like repairing resentment, unhappiness, or hurt feelings). Communication is about not just saying what you mean, it’s also ensuring you heard what was said.

Other Resources on Listening and Communication (from the Wright State University College of Business) (a more scholarly treatment of different types of listening) (listening to children)

More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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