Active Listening: What it Is and Why it Matters
Have you ever walked away from a conversation wondering if the person ever really listened? This can leave you feeling misunderstood, or even lonely. On the flip side, have you caught yourself hearing someone talk, but really thinking about something off-topic, or what you want to say next? In both circumstances, you’ve experienced disconnection that stems from hearing without really listening.
“There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
One way to grow in your relationships and conversations is through developing active listening. But what is active listening? How can it be developed? How does it increase relational health? Keep reading to answer these questions and to find exercises you can begin today.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is broadly defined as “more than ‘hearing’ someone’s words – it involves the goal of understanding the views and feelings of the person speaking” (What Is Active Listening? – Techniques, Definition & Examples, 2015). It also is centered on “…taking in all verbal and nonverbal cues to fully comprehend the message” (Schmidt, 2022).
Thus, active listening is centered on understanding, relating, and engaging in whole-body listening during conversation – it’s about being present and attentive to all that the other person is communicating.
Some non-verbal attributes of active listening include maintaining eye contact, having an open posture (not crossing your arms), leaning towards the speaker, nodding at appropriate times, and avoiding distractions (like looking at your cellphone, picking at your nails, etc.), and a non-threatening posture (Cuncic, 2022). It is similar to “whole body” listening, which means all of you is engaged in the conversation.
Why It Matters
Good communication is a foundational element of all healthy relationships, which affects everyone from your co-workers to your friends and family. One way to foster good communication skills is through consistent active listening. It can be the difference between hearing and understanding, disconnection and connection.
In fact, a majority of relationship issues stem from a lack of understanding and miscommunication. Furthermore, “Attachment theory has helped us understand that the most basic emotional needs of human beings include the need to be heard and the need to feel important to our partners” (Grande, 2020). Developing active listening is imperative for your relational health.
Moreover, “Psychologist Willard Harley identified the 10 most common emotional needs of individuals in partner relationships. Among these was the need for ‘intimate conversation.’ [and] this need [can be] met by having discussions to inform or ask questions, discussing topics of mutual interest, and the willingness to listen to each other. More to the point, intimate conversation required giving and receiving undivided attention” (Grande, 2020). These are cornerstones of active listening.
Active Listening Exercises
Active listening is a skill that can be developed through intentional practice. In general, the following exercises focus on verbal and non-verbal sub-skills of active listening and can be practiced in pairs, groups, or individually. Remember, just like physical exercise, building your active listening muscle will take time and practice. But the benefits for your relationships and overall health are worth the work!
Active Listening Exercises and Tips for Non-verbal Skills
The first step in understanding your non-verbal active listening is to simply notice your current behavior. Body language and eye contact are clear signs of your focus and communicate volumes to your conversation partner. One exercise is to ask people you converse with often to give you feedback on your body language.
We listen with our ears but where our eyes focus is a good indication of our attention. Who hasn’t deflated when you look for connection with a listener only to see their gaze down at their phone or past your head? Maintaining eye contact is a demonstration of engagement with the other person.
This is a key aspect of body language and can convey both positive and negative emotions and engagement. People are wired to “listen” to what their body is saying. These are general examples, and it must be noted that there are differences in body language meaning across cultures.
Negative Body Language – the following postures tend to convey disengagement, disinterest, ambivalence, or even agitation/anger to the person speaking.
- Crossing your arms
- Slumping in your seat, leaning away, or turning your body away from the speaker
- Hands in clenched fists or fidgeting
- Head turned down or away
- Distance- too close can unintentionally be intrusive or threatening, and too far away can convey disengagement
Positive Body Language – these postures communicate engagement, attention, warmth, and openness.
- Arms in a neutral or open position such as folded in your lap or open on a table
- Sitting upright and leaning toward the speaker
- Hands open or engaged by holding something like a cup
- Head turned toward the speaker
- Comfortable distance – this is made easier when sitting at a table or on a couch, it can be helpful to sit down first and then allow the other person to sit where is comfortable for them.
Our facial expressions communicate volumes about our emotional state and attentiveness.
Negative Facial Expressions
- Frowning or clenched jaw
- Zoning out – eyes unfocused, mouth open or jaw disengaged
- Sighing deeply conveys boredom
Positive Facial Expressions
- Slight smile (depending on the tone of the conversation- if someone is communicating emotional distress, this would be inappropriate)
- Nodding in agreement or in understanding
- Eyes alert and focused with appropriate eye contact
More tips can be found at The Importance of Body Language Analysis – From MindTools
Verbal Active Listening Exercises.
Here are conversational exercises and tips for active listening. In general, active listening in conversation is centered on receiving the message and replying to check for and communicate understanding.
Practice reflecting and paraphrasing.
These involve summarizing what the person has just said to check your understanding. Phrases such as “what I’m hearing you say is…” or “It seems like you may be feeling…” open the door for the speaker to either affirm or clarify what they meant.
Exercise: Before having a conversation, write out a list of starter reflection statements: “What I’m hearing is…”, “It seems like that experience was…”
Check your judgments.
This entails being aware of your personal biases and judgments and “Make the conversation a safe zone where the person can trust they won’t be shamed, criticized, blamed, or otherwise negatively received” (Cuncic, 2022).
When in doubt, stay silent.
Silence can be active listening. So often we rush to fill silences that are uncomfortable. But waiting to talk can hold space for the person to continue to process or think. If you feel like you need to speak, asking a question like “is there more you’re thinking about” can show the person you are engaged and present. Avoiding interrupting also shows that you’re not just waiting for your turn to talk.
Exercise: four minutes of uninterrupted talking – plan this with a friend and use a timer, take turns talking on a topic of your choice that you care about for four minutes, at the end the listener summarizes and reflects what they believe is the main point. See full exercise: 7 Targeted Active Listening Games, Exercises and Activities for Adults (goodlisteningskills.org)
Ask open-ended questions. Asking questions that do not have yes or no answers keeps the conversation going by communicating engagement and bringing clarity.
Exercise: conversation starters – in this exercise you start a conversation with open-ended questions.
There are many games such as “Where should we begin” that have many conversation ideas.
Avoid advice-giving unless they ask for it.
Problem-solving has its place in conversation, especially in conflict resolution. But jumping in with advice or trying to fix situations can actually leave the other person feeling unheard or like a project, rather than understood or met with empathy. Give advice only when they ask for it.
This involves a non-judgmental reflection of the emotion conveyed by the speaker. “For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why they feel that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in that person’s position. You might respond, ‘I can sense that you’re feeling frustrated,’ and even ‘I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.’” (Greater Good in Action, 2022).
Overall, active listening is foundational for good communication and healthy relationships. Making time for active listening exercises can help you develop the skills you need to grow in your listening which will strengthen your relationships.
Cuncic, A. (2022, February 13). What is Active Listening. Retrieved from Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-active-listening-3024343
Grande, D. P. (2020, June 2). Active Listening Skills. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-it-together/202006/active-listening-skills
Greater Good in Action. (2022). Active Listening. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from Greater Good in Action: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/active_listening
Schmidt, A. P. (2022, February 20). What is Active Listening. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from Skills and Care: https://skillandcare.com/what-is-active-listening/
What Is Active Listening? – Techniques, Definition & Examples. (2015, May 21). Retrieved April 29, 2022, from Study.com: https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-active-listening-techniques-definition-examples.html
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