Updated: Jan 11
Active listening is the key to enhancing any relationship.
The ability to make a person feel heard, seen and understood in any relationship is more than just valuable, it's necessary if you want to build genuine rapport, trust, openness.
I believe any relationship can become a therapeutic interpersonal relationship with active listening. I consider this a foundational skill of any high quality coach, therapist, manager, employee and even a high quality friend, spouse or stranger.
The benefits of active listening far outweigh the small amount of effort it takes to learn and apply it.
What is Active Listening?
Before I go into what it is, I want to start with what it is NOT. Active listening is NOT looking at your phone when listening. It is NOT being distracted by the attractive person walking past you. It is NOT acting like you know what the person is going to say or giving them a condescending gaze while they talk. When you do any of the above you are telling this person (with your body language) that what they have to say is not important. You are telling them you do not value what they are saying.
What active listening is, is the ability to focus completely on the speaker, in an enthusiastic, relaxed and considerate way. The ability to understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully. Unlike passive listening, which is the act of hearing a speaker without retaining their message, this highly valued interpersonal communication skill ensures you’re able to engage and later recall specific details without needing information repeated.
Active listeners use verbal and non-verbal techniques to show and keep their attention on the speaker. This not only supports your ability to focus, but also helps ensure the speaker can see that you are focused and engaged. Instead of thinking about and mentally rehearsing what you might say when the speaker is done, an active listener carefully considers the speaker’s words and commits the information to memory.
An example I love comes from this article published by a nurse on her personal reflection on how her nursing practice was enhanced as a result of losing her voice.
Surprisingly, being unable to speak appeared to improve the nurse/patient relationship. Patients responded positively to a quiet approach and silent communication. Indeed, the skilled use of non-verbal communication through silence, facial expression, touch and closer physical proximity appeared to facilitate active listening, and helped to develop empathy, intuition and presence between the nurse and patient. Quietly 'being with' patients and communicating non-verbally was an effective form of communication. It is suggested that effective communication is dependent on the nurse's ability to listen and utilize non-verbal communication skills. In addition, it is clear that reflection on practical experience can be an important method of uncovering and exploring tacit knowledge in nursing.
How to active listen?
The first and most important thing is to come from a foundation of genuinely caring about making the person feel seen, heard and understood. Not many people truly listen to other people and this can make it a lonely world. If you have a genuine, objective interest in other people and what they have to say you will be a great person to talk to. It's easy to think that some people are boring but I believe all people are fascinating. All you have to do is ask them the right questions and you will get fascinating answers. Having the frame of mind that everyone has something interesting to say if you ask the right questions, will make conversation easy. I can't express the importance of this to the long term success of relationships, especially your close relationships. I personally don't see any point to having a friendship without any genuine interest or depth to the conversations. It takes time, consideration and curiosity to ask good questions and listen properly. There will be a fulfilling relationship if two people do this. Without it, no fulfilling connection will manifest.
Following is a common list of non-verbal techniques that can be valuable in the process of active listening:
Smiling combined, facial expressions with head nodding – This shows the speaker the listener is paying attention to what is being said. It is also confirmation the listener understands and is happy about the messages conveyed. It's using your facial expressions, eye brow movement, smiling and head nodding to communicate back to them as they talk so they can comfortably calibrate. (see the video below) Since facial expressions are closely tied to our emotions, they reveal what we are thinking and are perhaps our biggest nonverbal communicators in everyday life.
Eye contact – Use steady, relaxed eye contract. Sometimes too much eye contact comes across as disingenuous, while too little shows a lack of interest. Listeners should always strive for somewhere in between, matching their level of eye contact to the confidence of the speaker. Eye contact can be combined with other non-verbal signals for encouragement.
Body posture – Body posture can be used to determine a participant’s degree of attention or involvement during a conversation. Bad posture, like slouching, may indicate the listener is uninterested in the conversation.
Vocal tone – Speaking style, pitch, rate and volume all contribute to understanding the speaker. Changes in vocal tone during a conversation are also a noticeable nonverbal cue that contributes to your understanding of the person speaking.
Mirroring – The process of slightly imitating the facial expressions, gestures, posture, and vocal tone of the speaker. Studies have shown that mirroring is a human bonding mechanism and can be used to show empathy and build rapport during conversations.
Now that we’ve covered non-verbal techniques, let’s take a look at some verbal strategies:
Paraphrasing (summarisation) – This means the listener restates the information given by the speaker in their own words. Paraphrasing demonstrates to the speaker that their message has been listened to and understood. It also allows the listener to clarify their understanding of the message if unsure.
Open-ended questions – Or any question that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to expand on a topic and let's them know their ideas matter to the listener. It also relaxes nervous speakers since most people are quite comfortable talking about themselves and what matters to them most.
Positive reinforcement – If used in small quantities, positive reinforcement encourages the speaker to continue. Frequent use of words such as ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ should be avoided. Instead, the listener should elaborate on why they are supportive of a particular point.
Sharing similar experiences – When the listener shares a comparable experience, it lets the speaker know their message has been interpreted successfully. Shared experiences also encourage strong relationships to form.
Recalling previously shared information – While the listener doesn't need to, and probably shouldn't take notes during a conversation, it is worth mentioning concepts, ideas, or other points from a previous conversation. This is a good way to show the speaker that their words were listened to and made a lasting impression.
Below is a great example of active listening in a coach/client setting
Below is a fun example of how NOT to do active listening
Also, take notice of how people listen to you and how it makes you feel. You might notice that the favourite people in your life are actually the ones doing the best listening.
Put this active listening into action and see what happens to your relationships.
Enjoy the journey,