The art of active listening: 10 tips to hear what people are really saying

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Newsflash, but most of us suck at listening. But the funny thing is, we don’t even realize it.

A survey noted that whilst 96% of people claimed to be good listeners, research discovered only around half of us remember what people say.

In reality, we get distracted, make assumptions, and spend way too much time thinking about what we’re going to say next.

Could active listening be the solution?

This article will offer 10 tips for better communication and stronger relationships.

So let’s dive in.

What is active listening?

Active listening is next-level listening.

It goes beyond just hearing words and encourages us to try to tap into the meaning and intent behind them.

Rather than being a passive role, we’re still an important part of the communication process when we listen. 

So we need to be engaged, attentive, and present at all times. But as I eluded to in the intro, this can be easier said than done.

Here are some simple ways we can all try to become better listeners…

1) Start by thinking about your communication weak points and what you need to work on

Self-awareness is the holy grail of personal development.

Simply because we need to be conscious of our strengths and weaknesses if we want to make positive changes.

So if you want to become a better communicator and listener it’s important to consider your communication style.

That way, we can also think about how our way of communicating and listening impacts others.

What bad habits have you developed?

If you’re not sure, you can always ask your nearest and dearest for feedback.

Personally, I’ve had to try and kick an ugly habit of interrupting.

For example, when I get particularly engaged or enthusiastic in a conversation I might leap in to agree or add something.

But cutting anyone off is most definitely one of those communication faux pas.

It’s not about beating yourself up about where you are “going wrong” but it is about shining a light on where you could improve.

2) Show interest and that you are engaged and listening

This one is all about giving plenty of affirming non-verbal cues to show that you’re listening.

I’m talking about things like:

  • Giving eye contact
  • Noding your head
  • Mirroring mannerisms
  • Appropriate facial expressions
  • Affirming their statements with a few select “umms and ahhs”

The truth is that we often do this without realizing it. But not always.

That’s why it’s a good idea to become more conscious of our cues.

We need to encourage the person who is speaking so that they feel heard.

That involves being more aware of the signals we’re giving off and at the same time paying close attention to theirs.

3) Take note of their body language and the signals they give off

Active listening is about understanding, and not just listening to what’s said.

So to make sure we get to the heart of someone’s message, we have to go beyond their words.

For example, it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it.

Tone of voice, or whether they are speaking fast or slow, quietly or loudly is going to give you a lot of clues about how they’re feeling.

Similarly, their body language will tell you a lot.

Whether they have closed arms, lean in or away from you, or can look you in the eye. All these things point to how they are feeling.

The more you can tap into and understand the other person’s emotions, the easier it is to respond appropriately.

4) Try to focus and be mindful of distractions

Be fully present in the conversation.

I once had a friend who, when we were out, would always look around the room when we were talking.

Or, more accurately, when I was talking to her. And it’s about as off-putting as it gets.

It makes you feel like the other person isn’t at all interested in what you have to say.

The same goes for checking phones, folding laundry, and flicking through the TV channels.

Giving someone your undivided time and attention is important for relationships. And that’s not going to happen when the person you’re trying to talk to is distracted.

So mute the TV, put your phone away, turn down the music, and try to stop whatever it is that you are doing when someone talks to you.

You might think that you can multitask, but the quality of your conversation (and your listening skills) are bound to be diminished.

5) Get out of your head

How many times when someone was talking to you have you found yourself thinking about your reply?

I hold my hands up and admit I still have a lot of work still to do on this one.

It’s one of the main culprits for poor listening skills.

We end up placing more emphasis on our speaking role than our listening role.

That chatterbox inner voice can be busy having an internal dialogue. And in the process, you are no longer fully present.

As Steve Covey put it in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

6) Ask plenty of open questions

Be a better listener, and become more likable with this very simple communication hack:

Ask more questions.

Research has found that people like people who ask questions, and more specifically, follow-up questions. Aka, listening intently followed by asking another more detailed or specific question.

In fact, if you really want to impress someone, being a better listener and asking questions might be your best strategy.

According to the team of Harvard psychological scientists:

“The tendency to focus on the self when trying to impress others is misguided, as verbal behaviors that focus on the self, such as redirecting the topic of conversation to oneself, bragging, boasting, or dominating the conversation, tend to decrease liking…In contrast, verbal behaviors that focus on the other person, such as mirroring the other person’s mannerisms, affirming the other’s statements, or coaxing information from the other person, have been shown to increase liking.”

7) Clarify, but don’t be tempted to parrot what someone just said

If active listening were a state of mind, it would be curiosity.

That way, we don’t make assumptions, we clarify that we’re hearing things correctly.

You may have heard that it’s a good idea to show you’re listening by paraphrasing what someone has just said.

But it depends. 

There’s no need to repeat back what you’ve just heard to prove you are listening. But it can be a good idea to reflect on it and ask for any clarification.

That way you can check that you are understanding what they’re trying to tell you.

This can be as simple as paraphrasing and then asking them ‘is that right?’

8) Don’t be so quick to fill the silence

We all have different communication styles, and it’s important to be mindful of that.

For example, an ex once told me that sometimes I would jump in too quickly with a response when he hadn’t finished his train of thought.

His brain worked slightly differently, and he would prefer to take pauses to collect his thoughts.

Once I was aware of this, I was able to make sure I left a big enough gap between him finishing a sentence, and me starting to speak, just in case he had more to add.

As silly as it may sound I would literally count to 5 in my head sometimes so I didn’t cut him off. 

Some people love a quick-fire exchange, but others prefer to be considered and take their time.

Leaving room for silence means that everyone gets an equal chance to be heard.

9) Stay open and non-judgemental

We can have almost instant internal reactions to what someone is telling us.

It’s natural.

But it’s also important to try to stay as neutral as possible to what someone is telling you.

Rather than pass judgment, try to empathize.

Refrain from any language or body language that might make the other person feel unsafe to fully express themselves.

It’s hard to be vulnerable and keep communication lines open when we’re worried about how we’ll be received.

10) Ditch the unsolicited advice

Picture this:

You get home after a long day at work.

You’re tired, you’re fed up, and you’re looking for some comfort from your partner.

You start to explain what a hard day you’ve had. And you share a few details about one particularly awkward colleague.

They immediately jump in to explain what you could do to improve the situation.

It’s an attempt to be helpful. It comes from care and concern. Yet it can be annoying as hell.

It’s a good idea to ask what someone is looking for before diving in and giving your opinions or advice.

Often we simply want someone to hear us out. We’re looking to vent and get something off our chests.

Despite it being very well-meaning, having “solutions” thrust upon you can make you feel worse.

Active listening is an art, not a science

As the title of this article suggests, active listening will take some practice because it’s more of an art than a science.

And so we need to find our own style when doing it. There’s not a one size fits all cookie-cutter mold.

But by following these basic tips, along with some patience and perseverance, we can become better listeners.

Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

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