5 ways to listen better | Julian Treasure
How to Actively Listen
Active listening is a technique incorporating various listening strategies, giving the speaker feedback that the listener clearly understands what is being said. It is commonly used in counseling, but it also helps in personal and professional communication. To become an active listener, utilize your own body language to show attentiveness to the speaker. You can also work on developing your empathy to better understand where a person is coming from and be able to name their emotions. Finally, you can learn some conversation techniques that can help clarify and deepen the conversation.
To be an active listener, start by squarely facing the person you’re talking to and lean in with open posture to indicate that you’re listening. Keep your arms at your side so you don’t seem closed off. Then, engage with the other person by paraphrasing their answers or asking them open-ended questions like, “What was that like?” Remember to keep your attention on them and not get distracted by your phone or other conversations.To learn more about how to actively listen, like how to mirror the person you’re talking to, read on!
Showing Attentiveness with Body Language
Pay attention.Focus your attention entirely on the speaker. This will not only help you remember the conversation, but it will help your listener feel more comfortable sharing more personal information. We are more likely to delve more deeply into a conversation if we believe the other person is hearing us.
- Have your conversation in a quiet area where there are no distractions. Put away your phone, or turn off music.
- Active listening can be draining, as it requires much more focus than the usual listening we do on a day-to-day basis. Focusing your attention so closely on someone for a long period of time will likely leave you depleted at the end of your conversation. It is a skill that takes practice!
Show the other person you are ready to listen.Maintain a physical stance that makes you appear open and receptive to hearing what the other person has to say. To help you remember what open body language looks like, think of the acronymSOLER:
- Squarelyface the person. This shows you are present and attentive, and will also help you best read nonverbal cues.
- Openyour posture. Keep your arms at your sides or in your lap. Avoid crossing your arms or turning your body away.
- Leantowards the sender. If you’re sitting, sit up tall and lean forward on your chair.
- Eyecontact while listening.
- Relaxwhile listening. Avoid fidgeting or moving around while engaging in active listening. It may make the other person feel tense or distracted.
Make eye contact with the speaker.Eye contact is an easy way to indicate to the other person that you are paying attention to them. Sometimes eye contact feels uncomfortable, but force yourself to do it. It will get easier with practice.
- It's okay to break eye contact -- you don't need to stare them down. Too much eye contact can be unnerving. Natural breaks would include watching their hand gestures, looking where they are pointing, or looking away as though you are deep in thought.
- If you find making eye contact with another person uncomfortable, you could try looking somewhere on their face instead, like their forehead.
- You can also nod while you make eye contact with the other person, to encourage them to continue speaking.
Use your voice to convey attentiveness.Sometimes important conversations happen over the phone or in the car, or other places where it may not be possible to show attentiveness with your body language. In this case, convey you’re listening by interjecting minimal encouragers. These are vocalizations to let others know you are listening.
- For example, you could say things like “mm-hmm,” “yes,” “uh-huh,” “I see,” or “oh.”
- Ask open-ended questions to invite the other person to talk more.
- You can also use minimal encouragers in person, though attentive body language is more effective in conveying presence and willingness to listen.
- Restate what the person you’re speaking to has said. IT will let them know you’re paying attention and that their voice is heard. For example, if they are angry at something, you could say, “That does sound frustrating and I understand why you’re upset.”
Develop empathy.Empathy is the act of understanding, imagining, and/or feeling what the speaker is feeling. Empathy is the feeling of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It’s important in active listening because it helps you to name and identify the other person’s feelings, which helps validate the other person and help them know you are listening to and understanding them.
Pay attention to your own emotional reactions.When you are listening to another person, you may begin to feel or intuit the other person’s emotions. You may be mirroring the person’s emotions, or perhaps you are reacting to their emotions. Sensing what another person is feeling is known as affective empathy.
Take note of the speaker's body language.This will give you clues into the meaning, feeling and purpose behind what the speaker is saying, helping to generate empathy. Many researchers believe we convey more of our true thoughts and feelings through our body language and tone of voice than through the words we use. Here are some things you can look out for:
- Facial expressions. For example, are they genuinely smiling when they are conveying happy news?
- Tone of voice. Listen to the way their voice sounds when they speak. For example, “I’m thrilled for you,” could be said in a way that sounds truly excited and happy for the other person, or it could be said sarcastically.
- Gestures. Gestures can convey many emotions. Think about clapping your hands or bouncing up and down when excited, or crossing your arms in front of your chest or putting your hands on your hips when angry.
- Body position. Watch how a person uses the placement of their body to convey feeling. For example, if someone moves closer to another person when talking to them, it likely conveys a closeness of relationship.
Figure out the tone of the conversation.Use your empathy to determine what kind of tone you should take with the speaker. By observing body language and listening carefully, you can decide if your conversation is more lighthearted or serious in nature.
- The other person may begin the conversation with “Can we talk about something?” or “I have something to tell you,” which gives you a clue that the subject matter is probably serious.
- Observe body language. With a more serious conversation, you may possibly see fewer gestures, a more protective posture (like arms across the chest), or less eye contact. The speaker may be trying to “protect” their vulnerability.
- More serious conversations will also likely be in a lower, quieter tone of voice.
- Conversations that are less serious will likely be louder, with more hand gestures, smiling, and eye contact.
Be nonjudgmental.It is important to listen without judgment when you are engaging in active listening. Use empathy to understand where the other person is coming from, and why they made the decisions that they did. Remain open-minded by giving them space to talk without your interjections.
- Listen with the goal of understanding. Fully focus on what the other person has to say, then think of a response during a pause in conversation.
- Don’t jump to conclusions about the person. Avoid stereotypes. For example, an unemployed person receiving government food assistance may not be lazy. Save your opinions for after you hear their story.
Avoid giving advice.Unless the speaker specifically asks for advice, don’t offer it to them. Focus on understanding where the other person is coming from instead.
- If the speaker asks you, “What do you think I should do?” you could say, “You know, I need to think about that. Can you tell me more about what happened? Maybe we could figure out some next steps together.”
Helping the Conversation Go Deeper
Paraphrase.On its simplest level, paraphrasing is echoing back the speaker’s statement using different words. If the speaker says, "I could fall asleep right here," you could say, "You're really tired." Paraphrasing in active listening can be simple restating to let the person know you are listening, or you can take the paraphrasing a bit deeper to help the other person clarify their thoughts or feelings.
- For example, if the speaker says, “My mother is mad at me because I told her I have other holiday plans this year. She always wants us all to be at her house,” you could respond, “It sounds like you think your mother is very set in her ways.”
- Allow the speaker to further clarify if you misjudged their statement. The speaker could say, “No, my mother doesn’t like to travel.” Paraphrasing gives the speaker an opportunity to correct the listener without making either party feel defensive--an incorrect paraphrase can still lead to greater clarity.
Reflect back.Reflection takes paraphrasing to a deeper level, by paraphrasing and naming feelings you are hearing the other person say, both verbally and nonverbally. This requires you to develop your own empathic abilities, so that you are able to identify and name feelings you see in the other person.
- Phrases that indicate you are trying to reflect what the other person is saying include, “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “It sounds to me like....” When you are finished with your reflection, you could always ask “Do I have that right?” to make sure you are understanding them correctly.
- For example, the speaker could say, “I’ve been feeling really depressed since my father died. We didn’t have a good relationship, but I miss him anyway. Part of me is glad he is dead, but then I feel guilty I think that.” You could respond, “It sounds to me like you are grieving your father, but it was a complicated relationship so you are dealing with a lot of emotions right now. You’re sad, but maybe you’re also relieved.”
Allow for silence.Many people are very uncomfortable with silent gaps in conversation. Instead of looking at them as spaces to fill, consider looking at them as opportunities to engage in processing what was said. Give yourself and the speaker time to think before continuing.
- Practice being in silence with the people in your life since it will make you more comfortable and you will become a better listener.
- When you are formulating a response while listening, you are not listening fully to the speaker.
- If it is your turn to speak in the conversation, but you do not yet have a response, you could say, “Give me a minute, please. I want to think about how to respond.” Most people will appreciate your taking the time to develop a thoughtful response.
Name your own feelings.When the speaker has finished talking, you could describe how hearing what they said made you feel. This can be particularly helpful if you are speaking with a child, or a person who doesn’t have a great grasp on being able to identify their emotions.
- A good phrase to remember when utilizing this technique is "When you said this, this was how I felt…."
- Be sure not to talk too much, since this could be a sign of nervousness. Try to be aware of your emotions when you speak.
- For example, you could say, “When you told me about how your mom left you alone while she drank, it made me feel very sad. I would feel very lonely, helpless, and scared if I had been in your shoes.”
Ask open-ended questions.Ask questions that encourage the speaker to provide more than a yes or no answer. Ask questions that encourage a thoughtful response, allowing the other person to describe their thoughts and feelings. Some examples of open-ended questions include:
- How did you feel when that happened to you?
- What was it like to experience that?
- How do you feel when you retell that story?
- How do you think this experience changed you?
- How did you come to believe what you do?
- Who has influenced you the most and why?
QuestionWhat is an example of a non-helpful response?
Licensed Professional CounselorLicensed Professional CounselorExpert AnswerAn example of a non-helpful response is going off topic when it's your turn to speak or thinking about what you plan to say next while neglecting what the other person is saying at the moment.Thanks!
QuestionWhich of the following are ways you can listen for clues?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerAll of these strategies help you "read between the lines" and get to the meat of what a person is really trying to say. Watch body language, listen to tone of voice, and paraphrase to help clarify what the other person is saying.Thanks!
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