Active listening skills are invaluable for any relationship. Being able to truly listen to what someone is saying—and show them we’re listening—is a gateway to deeper connection and more intimacy. As humans, we all have a desire to be seen, to be heard and to be understood. Developing our active listening skills is one way we can help the people we care about meet these needs. Knowing we’ve shown up and fully engaged in a conversation also comes with its own sense of fulfilment and reward.
Although my active listening skills are not perfect, it’s something I consciously work on and use daily in my work (especially coaching) and personal life. I believe the world would be a better place if we could each take time to listen just a little longer and a little deeper. In this post, I want to share a few skills I’ve found useful for my active listening practice. I hope they’re useful for you too:
Work on the three levels of active listening
These are: what’s being said, body language and tone, and what’s not being said or the subtext. The first two levels are relatively simple, the third requires more practice. To listen between the words, you need to develop your intuition (or in this case, nin-tuition ;).
Actually listen (and show you’re listening)…
This goes without saying, but if we want to cultivate active ninja listening skills, that involves actually listening to what the other person is saying. It doesn’t involve thinking about what we will have for dinner, that conversation we had with our problem neighbour last week, wondering if the dog is OK at home alone, or any of the other thousands of thoughts that cross our minds each day. Active listening is almost like meditation. These thoughts will come up. Instead of getting caught up in them, it’s our job to brush them to one side and refocus on the conversation in front of us.
… But don’t try so hard you end up disrupting the flow of the conversation
With in-person conversations, best way to show we’re listening is through body language, rather than verbal interjection. That means eye contact, stillness, even leaning in slightly (without cramping the other person’s personal space).
While vocalisations (“mhmm” etc.) can be a useful way to show you’re listening, too many of these disrupt the flow of the conversation and become irritating. When we try too hard to show we’re listening, we end up making the conversation about us, even if the other person is doing most of the talking. Which brings us to the next point…
Practice shelving self-conscious thoughts
One of the biggest barriers to active listening is getting caught up in what we’re going to say next or wondering what the other person thinks of us. If we’re focusing on these thoughts, we’re not truly listening to what the other person is saying. Self-consciousness is natural, especially if you’re new to active listening, but practice shelving these thoughts and refocusing on the conversation as soon as you notice distraction creeping in.
To listen, it’s important that we can separate out our own feelings and judgements from those of the person in front of us. This is something that’s easier said than done. It requires self-awareness and a lot practice, but it starts with being able to empathise with the other person’s position and see the world through their eyes—even for a few minutes.
Practice congruence and kindness
Cultivating strong active listening skills doesn’t mean “agreeing with everything someone says and keeping quiet when we think otherwise.” Neither, though, is it radical honesty. It does mean pausing before we speak and considering the impact of our words before we deliver them.
If someone is telling us about a near-miss car accident that left them shaken and we respond with “At least no one was hurt” we might mean this from a well-intentioned, comforting place, but they might receive it as dismissal. We can’t control (nor are we responsible for) how people receive our words. But it’s still important to reflect on the impact of how we say what we want to say before we go ahead and say it.
Which one of these active listening skills are you going to work on next time you’re in the right situation? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.