As human beings, some of our deepest needs include the needs to be truly seen and heard. We want not only our presence in the world, but also our deepest emotions, fears, and dreams, to be acknowledged and understood. Of course, anyone who wants these needs to be met must learn to take the risk of being vulnerable in any given relationship – to let themselves be seen and known by another.However, anyone who has tried opening up in this way to others has undoubtedly experienced the sting of being ignored or dismissed – of the other person not truly listening to them and seeking to understand what is being communicated.
In order for others in our lives to feel more comfortable and willing to be open and vulnerable in our relationship with them, it is necessary to create as much emotional safety as possible within the relationship, and one of the critical skills for creating this sense of emotional safety is the skill of active listening.
Particularly when emotions are running high, we often have the tendency to hear the words someone is saying – but not actually listen. There is a significant difference.
Active listening is a skill that builds empathy for others, is necessary for conflict management, is vital for building intimacy in any relationship, and helps to create spaces where people can more easily take the risk of letting themselves be known.
In a world full of people desperate to make ourselves heard, it’s far too easy to tune others out, presume we know what they are going to say, or assume a defensive stance in conversations. But if we want to be good friends, parents, co-workers, or leaders, and truly show up for the people in our lives, we must cultivate the practice of being an active listener.
Active listening exercises.
Below are some active listening exercises to help become a more attentive listener.
Be present. To be an active listener, you need to give the person your full, undivided attention. For this first exercise, practice being present. This means putting down your phone (mute it if you must or go into do not disturb). If your smartwatch distracts you, take it off. Do not try to send a text, scroll Instagram, work on something, or check your devices. Give the person your complete attention.
Multitasking is a myth. The moment you start trying to do two things, one of those does not have your complete attention. You cannot give your full attention when your part of your mind is focused elsewhere.
Once you eliminate distractions, practice good active listening skills. Face the person you are talking to. Maintain eye contact. Do not let your gaze wander to what is happening around you or make comments about other things going on. Do not interrupt the person. This is active listening.
Quiet your inner dialogue.
To be a good active listener, you must quiet the commentary in your head. How often do we go into a discussion with a friend only to start attacking their point in our brain? If a name comes up of someone you dislike, are you able to stay in the moment and not get lost in the reasons why you do not like them? So much is lost because we are busy thinking of a rebuttal versus listening to what is being said.
You cannot actively formulate a response and listen at the same time. The point at which you start responding in your brain, you have stopped active listening. This is hard when it comes to people we don’t particularly like or hot-button issues; it is difficult to listen to someone with whom we do not agree.
Our knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and list all the reasons that person is wrong. When we get lost in our inner dialogue, it is like we are loading our canons, waiting for our chance to respond. We are waiting for the person to take a breath or make a point we can jump on. At that point, we’ve stopped active listening and have closed ourselves off to the potential of understanding.
If you need help to stop doing this, try listening to the news without reacting. Listen to a story about someone you don’t agree with and simply listen. Notice your body language, facial expressions, and whether your mind starts racing with rebuttals or judgment. If you cannot listen to a story on a hard topic, you will most definitely have difficulty listening to a friend. And if you have difficulty, practice!
Sometimes our knee-jerk reactions to topics or people require the insight of someone outside the situation. If there is a person or topic that sends you over the edge at the mere mention of it, it might be time to talk to someone. Our counselors are here to help you process your reactions, as well as help you cultivate your active listening skills. Call our office to set up an appointment.
Ask open-ended questions.Another way to be a good active listener is to be curious. The best way to do this is to ask open-ended questions. These are questions that allow for more than a yes/no or one-word answer, and they reflect a desire to more deeply know and understand the other person.
Closed-ended questions tend to start with would/could, is/are, who, when, and where. Open-ended questions begin with what, how, or why. Of course, if you ask, “Would you all go back to Cabo?” you can follow it up with, “Why?” or “What did you love most about it?”
Another trick is adding “and why” to a closed-ended question. “What was your favorite book of the last year and why?” “Did you see the latest episode of ____? What did you think?” Other classic open-ended questions are, “Tell me more.” “Why did you choose to do that?” or “What did you mean by ______?”
We tend to ask closed-ended questions. Pay attention in conversation to what kind of questions are used. How can you rephrase a closed-ended question to make it open?
Repeat what you heard.
One of the best ways to ensure you stay present during a conversation is to repeat what you have heard. You can start with, “So what I heard you say was…” or ask for clarity on one thing they say. “You mentioned loving the waterfall; can you tell me more about that?”
This is a useful tool in a conversation with someone you don’t necessarily agree with. It helps to take the emotion out of the discussion (because remember you aren’t rebutting in your head) and helps to ensure you are getting to the heart of what a person is truly saying. It also allows the person to clarify what they said and gives them a chance to add more context or nuance.
Tune in to emotion.Facts, observations, and opinions are often what people will initially share, but what really matters is the meaning they have made of these things, and how they feel about them. Being truly vulnerable involves letting our emotions be known, and yet, these are often the most difficult to share.
So, as the listener, seek to understand what the other person might be feeling. This might be expressed through their words, but it may also be evident (perhaps even more so) through their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, or pace of speech. Center your open-ended questions on their inner/emotional experience of what they are talking about.
People need your active presence.
Active listening keeps us present, helps us to get to know people more deeply, and builds empathy. We often miss someone needing a safe place to talk because we are distracted or consumed with what is happening in our own lives.
There are people in our lives who will spill their bad days without prompting, while others need to know they are in a safe place. Many don’t feel comfortable picking up the phone until they know they can trust the other person. Trust is earned, and it’s built through the repeated experience of another person’s active listening and presence.
Try using these active listening exercises to help you become a more present listener. One simple way to practice is to try it with someone you trust. Practice these active listening exercises with your children, your spouse, or your best friend. Use them to learn more about your family history or a friend’s upbringing.
Put on your reporter hat and ask open-ended questions of the barista you see every day, your co-worker you don’t know, or in your next meeting. And if you’re feeling brave, ask someone close to you what you could do differently in order to be a better listener for them.
If you need additional help learning how to practice active listening, contact us today. The counselors at our office are available to help you with every aspect of your personal growth.
“Listening”, Courtesy of Mimi Thian, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lunch Meeting”, Courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Navigator, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coffee”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Listen, Learn, Love”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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