4 Reasons Why You Still Can’t Actively Listen
And how to fix it.
Communication is key in relationships, but successful communication can be tricky.
In the age of short attention spans and technology-promoted distractions, it’s no surprise that so many of us need to go back to the basics of human interaction — and how to properly listen is at top of the list.
Chances are, despite your best intentions, you’re not listening to your partner properly. You’re there in body, but not in mind and spirit. You’re listening, but you’re not actively listening.
Actively listening means truly engaging. It means you concentrate on what’s being said, understand it, and respond in an appropriate manner.
You’re still not actively listening because you’ve been standing in your own way this whole time. Self-sabotage happens to the best of us, but you might not realize you’ve been doing it to your listening skills, especially if you consider listening to be a passive activity, not something that actually requires effort.
Here are four reasons why you still can’t actively listen to your partner in conversation:
1. You join the conversation with an agenda
It’s natural to have something to say when you join a conversation, but if you approach your partner with an agenda, your listening skills will be automatically compromised.
Having an agenda makes you selectively hear what supports your point and ignore what you don’t want to acknowledge. Since active listening means taking in your partner’s message in its entirety, having an agenda makes you prejudiced against their message, and prone to steer a conversation towards a preplanned outcome instead of letting it take its natural course.
2. You’re already formulating a reply while your partner is speaking
It seems fun to be the rapid-fire conversationalist we see in the movies, the person who has a response ready for everything and never skips a beat. What you should keep in mind is that characters are able to do that in the movies because they’re feeding from lines that have been written in advance.
In real life, rapid-fire response often requires you to start formulating your answer while your partner is still talking. Unlike a computer, you’re not naturally capable of performing two tasks at once. If you’re formulating an answer in your mind while your partner is talking, you’re not listening.
3. You make assumptions about what your partner is trying to say
Regardless of how well you think you know your partner, making assumptions about what they’re trying to say instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt is extremely arrogant behavior.
If you spend the entire conversation analyzing what they’re saying, trying to “see through” them instead of listening to the words, then you’re sabotaging the entire interaction.
Yes, people lie. Yes, sometimes you have to see beyond their words to get the full picture of who they are, but there are better techniques to help you with that than making assumptions as they’re trying to communicate something.
When you actively listen, you can analyze the message in its entirety and then come up with questions that will help you clarify what you’re not sure you understand.
4. You have your cellphone on the table
Researchers have found that the mere presence of a smartphone significantly lowers the quality of an in-person conversation, even if the phone isn’t being used.
We have become so attached to our phones — and to the possibility that they may beep with a notification at any time — that they divide our attention simply by being out in the open where we can see.
Having your phone out when having a conversation with your partner is just one more way you sabotage the interaction and prevent yourself from engaging in active listening.
How to get out of your own way and practice active listening
When it comes to active listening, getting out of your own way is a great start. Avoiding the mistakes above is the first step, putting in the effort is the next.
“Communication is about not just saying what you mean, it’s also ensuring you heard what was said.” — Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D.
Use your body language to demonstrate you’re listening
This one is quite simple, all it requires is that you look at your partner. Show them they have your undivided attention, but also take in their body language.
Ask questions with the intent to understand
You can give your partner feedback on how their message is coming across with simple questions such as “this is what I understand from what you’re telling me. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
Questions that clearly communicate your interest in understanding your partner sound a lot different than statements that put words in your partner’s mouth. Ask open-ended questions to give them another chance to expand on their point, and avoid making assumptions.
Wait for your turn and share your point-of-view
A good conversation has a natural back-and-forth of information, but knowing when and how to interrupt makes all the difference.
When you’re actively listening, you make sure your partner is done talking before you share your perspective. Feeling the urge to interrupt might be a sign that you’re formulating responses as your partner is talking instead of properly listening.
If you perceive your partner is monopolizing the conversation, you can even tell them so. Don’t be rude, but let them know you’d like a chance to talk for a while. Express your desire to contribute to the discussion and give them the chance to practice listening for a change.
Communication is a challenge in any relationship. We all come from different backgrounds and are used to different conversation dynamics, but as soon as you learn to treat listening as something that should be active, the quality of your conversations will improve significantly.