Have you ever said these words to someone: “Did you hear a single word I said?” Or… has anyone said that to you? It isn’t always easy to be 100% present in every moment of our lives. We have so much pulling at us and most Americans pride themselves at being successful multi-taskers. But there is a problem with the multi-tasking model. We miss a lot.
Prioritizing is key. You can fold laundry while watching reruns of Criminal Minds on Netflix. That’s easy! Or listen to a podcast about self-actualization on your headphones as you weed the garden. But there are some things that really do need your full attention. Should you talk on speaker phone to your colleague about the proposal you’re working on while you chop carrots for dinner? Maybe…. You decide. But when it comes to your chosen life partner, it really is a good idea to be a fully present, active listener—as much as you possibly can.
Whether she is asking you to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home, or telling you about her worst day ever—you want to hear her, right? Your guy may seem nonchalant as he jokes his way through the story of what his boss said to him that day, but believe me, he wants you to hear him… fully. We all want to be seen and heard. Especially by our partners.
Active listening is a valuable life skill that requires a high level of self-awareness. When we are really listening for the message, the underlying meaning, and the emotions attached to the message—it’s not just about the spoken words, and it’s most definitely not about us. It’s about the other person. So thinking about something else, waiting to say something, and many other common “bad listening habits” are to be avoided. Read on for some tips.
Guess how much do you think people typically hear when someone is talking? You’ll be shocked. On average, less than 50% and often as little as 25%–according to recent studies. What? C’mon folks, we can do better than that!
It’s good for everyone: benefits to being an active listener:
- You will avoid conflicts and misunderstandings that arise from simply not hearing—or understanding the nuances of—what was said.
- Your listening will validate the speaker. He or she will feel heard and understood, and when it’s someone you love, that can only be a good thing.
- By listening actively, you support the speaker without criticism. (Don’t worry, you will have a chance to talk too—but not while you are listening!)
- Your listening helps others clarify what they are feeling and even process their position.
- Listening actively allows you to understand the person’s point of view—which is kind of the point of listening in the first place, right?
Listen up! How to actively listen:
- Set your intention to do so. Even if you can’t stop what you are doing (driving the car, making coffee), you can take a second to tell yourself: “My partner is speaking to me. I am listening.” If you literally cannot actively listen right NOW because of what you are in the midst of—say, “I want to hear what you are saying. Give me five minutes.” Then, follow through with those intentions.
- Have an open mind. If you are like many people, you pride yourself on being open-minded. But it is very difficult to always be open-minded in relationships when the triggers are often oh-so-present, and the emotional content can be oh-so-intense. But… being an active listener means no judgement, no preconceptions, and no prematurely arrived-at conclusions. (I have to catch myself not to “decide” what I think when no more than a sentence has been spoken. I remind myself to wait, and listen to everything with mind open!)
- Use body language to prove that you are fully “there” with the speaker. Look him/her in eyes, lean into the conversation, nod. (Don’t forget to pay attention to the other person’s body language too. For more hints about understanding body language, see my blog: Do You Speak Body Language?
- Be fully present. Giving a conversation your undivided attention is something to practice until perfect. We all know someone who, when we are with him or her, makes us feel like the only person in the room. They convincingly really do want to know how we are, what we’ve been doing. Be that person! This means no distractions. Get rid of mental distractions (“I wonder what’s for dinner?” or “How long is this going to last? I gotta get to the gym….”) and real-world distractions too. Silence your cell phone, turn off the TV, and prioritize the conversation over the children, the dog, the goldfish….
- Use “listening words”—go on, okay, I see, yes. By doing so you show that you are listening. It is very comforting to the speaker to hear these occasional encouraging words. It does not mean you agree—only that you are hearing.
- Hear. There is a difference, ultimately, between listening and hearing. If you listen well, you really do hear what a person is saying. You can beat the 50% statistic rate! Hearing means more than just words—it includes the person’s feelings and intentions. Working on empathy skills is all part of being an active listener.
- Do not interrupt. For some of us, this can be very hard. After all, we have so much to say! But… no. Be patient and let the other person finish speaking. And (see “Be fully present” above)—school yourself not to be planning your “comeback” while the other person is speaking. If you are doing that, you are not listening!
- Mirror. Mirroring is hugely important and some people do it instinctively, while others don’t and need to practice. Part of mirroring is the “listening words” mentioned above, and part of it is the “listening body language.” It also means that you say what you heard. Paraphrase what you understand has been said. “If I am hearing you correctly, you are worried about….” Or “This is what I heard you say: you are unhappy about ….” Realize that what someone means and what you hear can be quite different. By mirroring in this way, you can catch any misunderstandings. Either the other person will say, “Yes! That is what I mean.” In that case, you have succeeded in making him/her feel validated and heard. But if the person says, “No, that is not what I meant at all,” don’t be upset or feel criticized, simply say, “I’m sorry. I want to hear what you are saying. Please help me understand better.”
Active listening is something we can all learn to do with practice, determination, and self-awareness. It is a wonderful skill to have in a romantic relationship but will enhance professional relationships and friendships as well. Be intentional about actually hearing what the other person is saying and your understanding and relationships will improve dramatically.