Most of us move through each day engaging in conversations with friends, co-workers, and family members. But the majority of the time, we aren't listening.
We're often distracted by things in our environment--both external things like televisions, cell phones, cars, and other people talking, and internal things like our own thoughts and feelings.
We think that we're listening to the other person, but we're really not giving them our full and complete attention.
As a licensed therapist and coach, one of the most important things I do for clients is deeply listen to what they're saying. When you deeply listen with your whole body and mind to what another person is communicating, it helps them feel understood and valued.
One technique that therapists learn in graduate school that aims to provide full and complete attention to the speaker is called active listening.
Active listening builds rapport, understanding, and trust. It's a proven psychological technique that helps therapists create a safe, comfortable atmosphere that encourages clients to discuss important thoughts and feelings.
Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being said rather than passively absorbing what someone is saying. It's not just about remembering the content of what someone is sharing, but actively seeking to understand the complete message--including the emotional tones--being conveyed.
This type of listening involves participating in the other person's world and being connected to what the other person is experiencing.
That's a lot of information--much more than you're used to consciously interpreting in daily conversations. And that's because many things get in the way of active listening.
People often are selective listeners, meaning that they focus on a few key words and ignore the rest of the person's communication. They're often distracted by external stimuli like random sounds or movements, and internal stimuli such as one's own thoughts and feelings.
In other situations, individuals allow their own biases and values to pick arguments with the other person's speech rather than remaining focused on their message. They waste valuable time and energy preparing to respond rather than giving their full, undivided attention to the speech.
With all of these challenging layers to active listening, how does one improve these skills?
Read the list below to discover how to become a better listener, and in doing so, become better at navigating relationships and networking opportunities.
1. Avoid internal and external distractions.
Focus on what they're saying. Don't allow other thoughts or sounds to sway your concentration.
2. Listen to the content of their speech.
Focus on the specific words they're using. Each phrase and word choice is something interesting that you should be taking in.
3. Listen to the context of their speech.
What are the over-arching stories and circumstances they are discussing? Are there common themes? What are the unique situations this person finds themselves in and how does that relate to what they're telling you?
4. Listen to the tone of their voice.
Vocal tones convey a lot about what a person might be feeling. Think about what their vocal tone implies about their feelings. All feelings have a story--learn theirs.
5. Listen for the emotions the speaker is likely experiencing.
The more that you follow and amplify the person's emotions, the more likely they are to feel understood. With so many people uncomfortable about sharing their feelings, moments of vulnerability can quickly build a deeper connection.
6. Pay attention to their body language and make appropriate eye contact.
With much of communication being non-verbal, it's incredibly important that you soak in as much information as possible while also showing them--physically--that you are sharing in their experience.
7. Provide small verbal encouragements and don't fight silences.
Saying small things like, "yes," "right," "that makes sense," and allowing natural silences to occur without filling them due to your own discomfort goes a long way in building rapport.
8. Ask open-ended questions to encourage elaboration.
There's no substitute for a good question--try to get lengthy responses to understand the big picture.
9. If you need them to slow down or want specific info, ask close-ended questions.
Questions that can be answered in yes or no slow down the pace when you're feeling overwhelmed and also allow you to gather important details that you missed earlier.
10. Offer affirmations that the person has made valuable and important choices.
Affirmations are like compliments--everyone likes them. Instead of saying, "I'm proud of you," like a compliment, an affirmation focuses on the other person, "You should be proud of your hard work."
Start practicing these basic listening skills. They are simple yet powerful ways to facilitate conversation and help others feel understood.