Active Listening Skills: How To Be An Active Listener?
When You Just Don’t Understand Why
We’ve all seen the classic “American teen” trope in media and popular culture: A teenager is having a heated, broiling argument with her/his parent about something (this can vary greatly) but the end result is usually the same. The teenager whirls and bolts from the room, yelling something along the lines of “you just don’t understand!” or “why aren’t you listening to me?!” And perhaps it’s because I still am a teenager myself, but I find that I empathize with the teen more than with the parents, who are portrayed as unrelenting, strict, and out of touch.
However, neither party is at fault, though both are culpable for not listening to the other. I grew up with parents who never used the “because I said so” logic that so many of my peers were subjected to. I didn’t realize it was an actual excuse until I went to school, where faculty pulled it out of their back pockets for the cure-all to any and all misbehavior.
My family emphasized active listening skills; reasoning, and logic. Even at four or five, I remember my parents replying to my questions with factual information (often vastly oversimplified). If they didn’t know something, they just admitted it. Therefore, I was taught to listen — not to obey, but to listen actively and understand. Though I disagreed at times with my parents, I still tried to consider their perspectives with an open mind. In turn, my parents listened intently when I offered my point of view. They asked questions only to better understand my stance. I try to bring these skills to all my relationships, making more of a concerted effort after I realized how important active listening skills really are.
Why We Just Can’t Listen?
So many relationships — friendships, sibling-ships, romantic relationships — seem to fall victim to miscommunication and deaf ears. The problem with communicating with close friends or family is the “illusion of insight”, as Nicholas Epley states. Epley, who co-authored a study about communication, found that people paired with strangers and then with those they were close with had no difference in understanding each other.
We tend to assume our friends, family, and partners understand exactly what we’re saying. Even when we leave gaps in our stories because they’re so close to us. In reality, those closest to us still have their own perspectives and opinions. We should never assume they see something the same way that we do. Therefore, we need to listen to everything they’re saying, not tune it out because we presume we know what they’re going to say.
People often don’t listen well; they mostly just wait for you to finish talking so they can speak their own minds. It’s frustrating and demeaning, yet we all do it. In order to actively listen, you have to silently and fully engage with the other person. Active listening skills is described as a skill that builds “rapport, understanding, and trust”. When you really listen, the other person will sense it and be more honest and open about what they say. They will be confident that they’re not spilling their deepest secrets to a distracted, thoughtless brick wall.
In addition, active listening is a powerful force that can help to build some of the strongest and most trusting relationships possible. Every single person is a small world full of unique experiences, memories, and perspectives, and conversations are merely tourist exchanges between worlds. We are tourists, traveling each and every day even as we talk to others. If we take the opportunity to listen and understand these other worlds, perhaps our own would be brighter, broader, and more tolerant.
How To Develop Active Listening Skills
- Stay focused and alert. Don’t have an important conversation if you’re distracted by your phone, email, or social media. Don’t look at the clock or think about dinner for later. Just be present and understand what the other person is saying.
- Speak only to re-state or encourage. I have found that restating is helpful both for the listener and the speaker. As the listener, restating something can refocus your attention on the conversation and ensure you understand everything correctly. It forces you to think about what you just heard, understand it, and then reshape it. For the speaker, it’s often useful to hear their own thoughts and sentiments spoken back to them. To show that you’re listening, you could give short prompts like “mmm-hmm”, “yeah”, “I understand”.
- Don’t jump in with advice or contradictions until after they have finished, and give advice only with they ask for it. Most times, people just want to be heard. They don’t care that you don’t have any advice for getting over a break-up or losing a loved one; they just want to voice their thoughts and feelings. With that in mind, just listen. Listen until the very end, and if they ask for advice then you can give some if you have any. If they don’t, empathize with them. As Tom Haverford said to Chris Traeger in this Parks and Recreation episode, “When Ann tells you what’s bothering her, don’t try to fix it. Just say, ‘Damn, that sucks’”. While his advice may be a slight oversimplification, Haverford has a point.
- Keep an open mind. Suspend all judgment. This is a tricky one and takes a lot of practice. It can be hard not to pass judgment about another person, especially when they have an opinion that never even crossed our minds. Despite how hard it may be, and how much you want to cut in with your ideas and perceptions, try to shove them all aside. Lock up your own thoughts (just for a little while) in a flimsy box in a shallow corner of your mind. Here they’ll be safe but easily accessible for later, and listen to the other person. Remember, each person is a complex conglomerate of experiences and ideas. Nothing is ever black or white. It is only by active listening with an open mind that we can begin to understand the root of everyone’s thoughts and actions.
- If you ask questions, be prepared to dislike the answer. Part of a strong relationship is the freedom to tell the other person anything. You may not want to hear the bad news or constructive criticism, but you still need to listen, especially if you asked the question. Honesty is crucial but very difficult. If the other person has the courage to be honest with you about something negative, the least you could do is actively listen. You may disagree, but still, hear the person out and try to keep an open mind.
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