Active Listening; A Simple Strategy to Improve Your Relationships

The word ‘communication’ feels like quite a serious word, and has an ‘action taking’ quality to it.

To ‘communicate’ (noun) is definitely something we ‘do’. And I think we can all get quite serious about that action when we don’t feel heard. We talk, we state our case, and often our emotions get dialed up to eleven, along with our volume.

But ‘communication’ is a more delicate art, which involves listening and receiving messages, just as much as transmitting them.

Since communication is a two-way (or multi-way) thing, in future posts I will talk about the other key aspects of it, such as getting your point across when you need to. But let’s start with listening, and specifically active listening as it’s something really simple that makes an enormous difference to your relationships.

This simple skill gives a huge boost to any relationship

Active listening is actually a tool us life coaches use, and we all learn it during our coach training. It is a skill that when used in daily life, improves your interpersonal relationships no end, boosts your chances of career growth, and makes the world a much richer place to be.

If you want to be the person that people trust and feel safe turning to for help, and you want your loved ones to know how valued they are, then listening well makes a huge difference.

So without further ado, here’s how it’s done…

Listen with your ears AND your eyes

 Starting with something really simple here – make eye contact. Not creepy, lingering eye contact. But show them you are involved in what they are saying, and keep your phone to one side.

Ask open questions

One way to show you are actively listening is to ask questions, when appropriate. It also helps to make sure you are truly understanding what is being said, so you can give an appropriate response. So if you are not sure that you fully understand, then some great examples of open questions include:

“Can you tell me more about that?”

“So what does that mean for you?”

“How do you feel about what happened?”

“What might you do next?”

“What did you think while that was going on?”

These are not ‘yes or no’ questions, and therefore they encourage the person to open up more and give you more context.

Don’t listen to reply, listen to learn

This really is the key to active listening. Your goal is to listen to learn, not to respond. For most of us, we are always in our own heads, thinking about what we are going to say next. Often when people are talking to us, our mental chatter is full of our possible responses.

The trouble with listening to respond is that we get so hung up on what we are going to say next. We wonder, will our response makes us look smart, or silly? Or perhaps can we respond in a way that steers the conversation to our own agenda?

When this mental chatter is going on, it consumes our attention, and we fail to listen properly to the other person. We may even miss something really important!

Listening to learn, on the other hand, is about focusing 100% on what the other person wants you to hear. Or maybe 90% if you are walking and talking – don’t fall over or walk into a bin. But you get the idea.

The trick to this is to reassure yourself that you don’t NEED to have a perfect response ready to go. It’s okay to hear somebody, make a ‘mmm’ noise if you need to verbally acknowledge them, and THEN think before you speak.

Don’t be afraid of silence

Just carrying on my last point, seriously don’t be afraid of a little silence – either from yourself while you process what you are hearing, or from the other person while they work up to saying something that they may find hard to say.

We are not used to silence in our noisy world, but maybe we should be. A little quiet space in between the messages gives us all room to think.

Acknowledge by nodding and a ‘mmm’

You can acknowledge what is being said and show you are paying attention without interrupting. Try practicing this with your friends until you develop the habit. When your friend tells you something that you want to react too, try reacting with a nod and a ‘mmm’, rather than responding with a sentence straight away.

Remember we are listening to learn, not listening to respond.

Summarise with a recap

This works across the board, from serious news to the everyday catch up. Show the other person you have heard them by – when they have finished talking – recapping a little on what you have just learned. This shows you really were listening all that time, and not mentally writing your shopping list.

Why it counts

One of the greatest acts of respect you can give somebody is giving them your time and attention. When you begin actively listening in all your relationships, from work to personal, you will see a huge improvement in the respect you get back in return.

Us coaches learn active listening to enable our clients to share with us more freely and deeply, and to help us get to the root of the problem much faster. But when you think about it, isn’t it a little strange that we all have to learn what seems like a really natural, human skill?

I think society has gone off track a bit with communication, and tech certainly hasn’t helped. And I can’t help but compare the lack of quality communication in our world with the increasing dissatisfaction I see in relationships today.

I think it’s time we claimed this skill back, and made ourselves happier by sharing with those we care about and giving them the gift of our time and attention.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so please do leave me a comment below.


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