The challenge of active listening

A while ago I started reflecting on conversations I’d had, throughout the day, and noticed a few things that scared me. I’d go so far as to admit that I’d become ashamed of my conversational behaviour.

I love talking and I love to listen to others; but attentive listening is harder than it seems, especially when the conversation is about something you are passionate about. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s not. Here’s why:

When discussing something I am passionate about, I like to contribute and share my knowledge — this is where the problem lies. I want to contribute to the conversation, not just listen, so I become too focused on my thoughts about the subject, and less focused on what is being said. It’s only because I get excited about the subject at hand, but it hinders my ability to be a good listener.

This is made clear to me when listening to someone talk about something I have less or no knowledge about — it’s easier to listen attentively because I’m not actively planning out a response.

After noticing all this in my behaviour, I wanted to pay more attention to listening skills in general. It was important that I get better at waiting my turn, and really, actually, listening. This soon turned into me analysing how my conversations went, and if I had given the other person enough time for them to speak fully.

Listening better

I came to the conclusion, that, to have better conversations, first you listen, then reflect on what has been said, before replying if needed.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of trying to say that one thing you are dying to say… when you haven’t actually processed what the other person even said!

I also realised that staying on topic is just as important. Interrupting someone to ask loosely related questions, doesn’t help the overall conversation.

What does all this mean? Well, if your best friend is telling you about their weekend in Spain and says something like

“There were so many cute dogs around there one of them even looked like my grandma’s dog Skipper!”

This is not the time to jump in with

“Ooh Skipper! how is he? Is he still stealing cookies off the table?’

Before you know it the conversation, is no longer about the weekend in Spain but about grandma’s cookies and Skipper, who eats all of them in secret.

Three little things to keep in mind

So, I decided that these are the three most important things, when it comes to listening.

1. Become aware that you are entering a conversation and actively remind yourself that you are going to listen.

  • Not just listen, but actually pay attention to what your partner has to say.
  • This forced awareness is to ensure you don’t go into an ‘autopilot’ conversation.

2. Really simple this one: Never interrupt.

  • Just because they’ve paused for a moment, doesn’t mean the person is done talking.
  • Don’t use this pause to become the talker. Wait. Listen.
  • Sometimes people need to pause a bit to rethink over their words. Interrupting doesn’t help.

3. Try to only ask questions related to your understanding of their point.

  • When you ask about something they’ve mentioned it can lead to a shift in subject.
  • Suddenly the conversation is about that question you asked and the original subject is forgotten.

Keeping these three things in mind, while actively thinking about conversations and their purpose, has helped me become a better listener very quickly. While it’s been tough, I have managed to control the urge to jump in and take over, as a point of consideration. With time, I hope this will become second nature.

Hopefully this short article will help you become a better listener. I’d love to listen or read about your thoughts on this subject.