How to Practice Active Listening to Improve Your Relationships
We share our struggles not to get advice, but to find our own way
I became familiar with active listening during a life-coaching course I took in the summer of 2019. Some of what the course taught me about active listening seemed like common sense. Showing genuine interest and paying attention to body language came as second nature to me.
What took some work, though, was stopping myself from offering advice or my personal opinion and asking open-ended questions. It was difficult at first, but the more I practiced active listening, the more I discovered that my relationships with those around me, especially my children, felt more open and we were able to connect more deeply. I listened more and judged less. I ask questions instead of assuming I knew how the other person felt. I was able to truly hear what the other person was experiencing and set my opinions aside, and by doing this I put myself in their shoes more easily. This led to a greater understanding and sense of empathy towards them.
You’ve likely heard of active listening and perhaps have even tried to use it in your own life. I’ve found, however, that it takes real work to hone this practice, and I can offer you some ways to do that here, with the goal of helping you deepen your relationships.
Common Communication Patterns
When we reach out to friends or family about an issue in our life, we are seeking something. Most of the time, that something is validation, connection, or help with a tricky situation.
We often call up our best friend, sit down next to our significant other, or text our parents, hoping for them to lend an ear to our problems and to gently guide us to the course of action we should take. These troubles talks, or informal conversations we have with others about our problems, are the predominant way that many of us deal with our daily struggles. When they go wrong, we can feel even more alone and confused.
Although we reach out with a certain expectation, what we receive from these conversations isn’t always what we hope for. We often walk away from the people in our lives feeling judged or misunderstood. We want someone to listen to us, but instead, we get an earful of their personal opinions. Already vulnerable, these opinions sway our minds and cause us to believe that our own feelings seem invalid or silly.
Other times we are given unsolicited advice, but instead of being helpful, their advice makes us feel pressured to take a certain course of action and leaves us unsure of what our hearts are really telling us to do.
The problem isn’t that our go-to confidant doesn’t care or isn’t trying to do their best; it’s that too often, people don’t truly listen to each other.
We do this ourselves: we are too busy trying to fix the other person’s problems or verbalizing our own belief about the situation that we don’t stop and empathize with them. We don’t realize that trying to fix their problems can sometimes push them away from the decision that would truly make them happy, or that simply hearing them and validating where they are in the moment can make them feel heard and understood.
People don’t come to us (or us to them) to have their problems fixed, but rather to share their struggles in an effort to find their own way.
This is where the technique of active listening comes into play. Active listening, sometimes called empathic listening, is a listening technique that has been used in multiple professional settings over the last few decades. It is part of training courses for counselors and therapists, life coaches, members of law enforcement, and those in the healthcare field. Although you may not be interested in counseling your loved ones, everyone can benefit from learning the principles of active listening and using them to become a better confidant and listener.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is more than sitting quietly on the receiving end of a loved one’s words. It involves thoroughly engaging your mind in the conversation, being curious about what the other person is saying, and holding back from offering advice or observations.
Active listening isn’t passive, and it can be tough to master at first, but once you begin to practice this technique, you will notice that your relationships with others feel more connected and intimate.
To actively listen, you first need to clear your head as best you can. Take some deep breaths, turn off the TV, put your phone away, mentally set aside any personal distractions, and do your best to give the other person your undivided attention.
Then, invite the other person to begin. You can do this by asking an open-ended question or an inviting statement, such as, “tell me about what’s going on with you,” or “you mentioned an issue at work, what’s the situation there?” Above all else, you want to show them that you are curious about what they have to say. You want to show genuine interest in their situation and feelings surrounding it.
As they begin talking, try to practice the following techniques. Pay attention to body language and tone of voice. Notice any gestures they make. These will give you clues to their state of mind and help you empathize with where they are. If they are flailing their arms around and using a loud, aggressive voice, you can infer that they are hurt or angry. If they are quiet and tearful, they may need extra sensitivity from you in the conversation.
Each observation you make can inform how you respond to them. Some people want tough love, while others need a gentler touch, and by engaging in the conversation in a way that honors what they need, you will deepen your relationship with them.
If the conversation stalls, prompt for more by using open-ended statements/questions that invite additional information (“how do you feel?”, “what are your options?”, “tell me about that”, “describe that situation”, etc). This is one of the most important parts of active listening, but it can be the most difficult.
Try to begin your questions with the words “how” or “what”, or simply use the phrase “tell me more”, if you get stuck.
In casual conversation, we are used to asking closed-ended questions that begin with “do you”, “aren’t you”, or “can you”, but these are yes or no questions, and can stifle the other person’s thoughts.
Throughout your talk, ask for clarification and summarize what the person has said. This is key to helping them to feel truly heard and understood. Check with them by saying something like, “It sounds like you’re really stressed about your situation with your boss. It seems to be affecting your ability to function at work and you’re thinking about leaving the company. Am I understanding what you’ve said?”
You’ll find your own wording, but the concept is that by checking in with the other person, they will know that you’ve heard them and that you understand their situation. They’ll walk away feeling like you truly get what they are saying, and it’ll be more likely that they’ll come to you in the future when they need help.
Finally, throughout the conversation, try to pepper in neutral, validating statements. You might say, “that must have been really difficult to deal with,” or “that was a really brave thing you did”. These kinds of statements don’t inject personal opinion, but they do validate and support the other person’s actions.