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11 Ways That Active Listening Can Help Your Relationships

Put active listening together with empathy to improve your relationships.

To become an effective communicator, you need to learn to listen just as much as you need to learn to speak. Unfortunately, most people focus more on the speaking than they do on the listening. Whether in a one-on-one conversation or a group meeting or classroom, focusing on what others are saying allows you to present yourself more effectively. When you listen correctly, you also learn more.

Look around the room during a lecture, presentation, or lunchroom. The tell-tale signs of people not listening are everywhere. Some individuals put on a blank stare that can only be described as their "screen-saver face" (in the words of one of my colleagues). You know what that screen-saver face looks like: it's that blank stare in which the eyes are dull and looking blankly into nowhere and the face has absolutely no expression on it at all. You'll also notice people in a group or audience who don't look at the speaker at all. In fact, they look everywhere else. They fiddle with their pencil or longingly gaze at their cellphone or even try to sneak a peek at its screen. If there's a window in the room they stare at the sky, even if the view is just that of the neighboring office building. A great speaker may captivate even the most recalcitrant audience member. The average speaker, colleague, friend, or family member may have a hard time grabbing the gaze of the assembled listeners who don't know how to practice basic listening skills.

If we are the speakers, we want others to listen. So why can't many of us perform the favor in reverse? It's possible that social media are causing many people to lose their focusing ability. Traditionally, the average listener requires a shift in stimulation after about 20 minutes. However, with rapid-fire messages coming everywhere from Facebook to Twitter to push notifications from online games, many people require a shift in stimulation after perhaps as short as 20 seconds. Unless you've got that charismatic touch, you're going to have a hard time fighting the attention deficits of your audience.

The problem with poor listeners is not only that they are perceived as rude but that they miss out on important knowledge. Studies of the harmful effect of multi-tasking on student learning, such as that conducted by Wood et al. in 2008, show that students who texted on their cellphones, emailed, updated their Facebook status, and sent instant messages had poorer grades than those who listened to lectures without distraction. According to the "cognitive bottleneck theory," proposed by psychologist Alan Welford in 1967, you can only process so much information at once before your learning starts to suffer.

Returning to the rudeness angle of poor listening, people who don't listen also seem to have poorer social skills in general. In a study of over 300 undergraduates, Louisiana State communication experts Christopher Gearhart and Graham Bodie found that students low in the quality they identified as "active empathic listening" had lower scores on a social skills inventory. Being a poor listener is associated with poorer social and emotional sensitivity. This was a correlational study, of course, so we can't determine causality. There may also be a third (or more) factor affecting both listening and social skills. These qualifications aside, the results are intriguing.

Another qualification is the fact that this was a college student sample, and admittedly not representative of the population. Still, one could argue that it's particularly detrimental for people to learn listening skills when they are in the emerging adulthood phase of development. The social skills you learn in your late teens and early 20s stay with you throughout life and can influence the quality of your life. If you don't develop your social skills in your early adult years, you'll have a harder time finding a job, a romantic partner, and a support network you'll need as you progress through adulthood. You might even be a more effective salesperson, if that's the line of work you decide to pursue.

The Active Empathic Listening (AEL) measure that Gearhart and Bodie used in their study actually came from a model developed by Drollinger et al. (2006) as a way to help salespeople listen, and hence, sell more products. The AEL has 11 key items that indicate how well you sense, process, and respond when you listen to a communication partner. The 11 items break down into 3 scales representing the three stages you need to go through in order to be an effective empathic listener. Active listening is only part of the skills. Active empathic listening shows that you also understand what's going on inside the mind of the speaker as if you were that person. It's a concept that traces back to the client-centered approach of the well-known psychologist Carl Rogers. When you're empathically listening, you do more than hear, you show that you know how the other person feels.

The three stages of AEL involve sensing, processing, and responding in empathic ways. In the sensing stage, you indicate that you are taking in all of the outward and inward features of another person's communication. Empathically sensing means that you understand not only what is said but how it is said. In the processing stage, you put the pieces of the conversation together to construct a "narrative whole" that provides you with the essence of what's being communicated. Finally, in the responding stage, you ask questions to make sure you understand what the person is saying. You also show, verbally and nonverbally, that you are paying attention to the speaker.

With this background, see how you rate on the AEL's three subscales:


1. How sensitive are you to what others are saying?

2. Are you aware of what others imply but do not say?

3. Do you understand how others feel?

4. Do you listen for more than the spoken words?


5. Do you assure others that you'll remember what they say?

6. Do you summarize points of agreement and disagreement when appropriate?

7. Do you keep track of the points that others make?


8. Do you assure others that you're listening by verbal acknowledgments?

9. Do you assure others that you're receptive to their ideas?

10. Do you ask questions that show you understand others' positions?

11. Do you show others that you're listening by your body language?

These items all are scored positively so that a "yes" gives you a score of plus 1. In the actual scale, you would rate yourself on a 1-7 scale of never to always true.

A quick check of the number of plusses you received out of 11 will show you how you stand on the AEL overall, and as you look at the subscales, where you need to work on your empathic listening more specifically.

Being an actively empathic listener means, then, that you not only make sure you're actively paying attention but that you let the speaker you know you are. You ask questions when you're not clear on what the other person is communicating, you try to infer what the person is feeling, and you let the person know that you remember what he or she actually said. You never drift off into la-la land, and your face doesn't assume that of a computer in sleep mode.

To these excellent points, I would add that a good listener not only uses active empathic skills but also takes a cue from good actors. You can see these qualities in actors on TV or in the movies, but the experience is most impressive in live theater. Actors involved in intense conversations with each other look directly at each other's eyes. If they want to show that they're involved in these conversations, they don't look out at the audience, nor do they look blankly into space. You could practically draw a laser beam line between their eyes. Actors avert their gazes from each other when they want to show that they're bored or don't care about the other person. Occasionally, for comic effect, they may break the "frame" and look at the audience or even at a person sitting in a particular seat. However, the norm is for actors to show their emotions and their emotional reactions to each other through direct eye contact and focused body language. In fact, some actors learn to develop their listening skills through workshops that help them learn to life "in the moment," such as Esalen Workshops.

If your active empathic listening skills need help, try taking a page from the playbook of great actors as you work through the three stages of sensing, processing, and responding. Look directly at the people you're listening to and turn toward them in a way that shows you're open to what they're saying. Put away your cellphone, stop doodling, and sit calmly while you look at them. Don't think about where you need to be or the fact that you'd like the conversation or lecture to be over because you're bored. Really focus on what and how the speaker is communicating. Chances are that when you clear your mind and truly show that you're listening, you will find it much easier to become engaged. Active empathic listening may require effort at first, but once you've mastered the technique, you'll find that it more than pays off in the emotional benefits you get out of your interactions and romantic relationships.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012.


Drollinger, T., Comer, L. B., & Warrington, P. T. (2006). Development and validation of the active empathetic listening scale. Psychology and Marketing, 23, 161-180. doi:10.1002=mar.20105

Wood, E., Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., & Nosko, A. (2012). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.08.029

Gearhart, C. C., & Bodie, G. D. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports, 24, 86-98. doi:10.1080/08934215.2011.610731

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