How to Become an Active Listener and Why it Matters
When was the last time you listened to someone speak, waited semi-patiently for them to finish, and replied with follow-up questions to learn or to understand more? (You know, vs. jumping in with a story of your own.)
Take a minute or two to think about this interaction. Maybe it was during an online course, a Zoom session for work, or a 1:1 with your boss. A conversation where you had to pay closer attention. Where you had to make an effort to keep your mind from wandering and staying in the present moment for as long as you could.
If it felt more challenging than usual, then you were practicing deep, active listening. Because it is an effort. A conscious effort to devote close attention to what another person is saying, to avoid distractions and to stop yourself from crafting comments in your mind while they are still speaking.
Now, think of a recent conversation with your partner or a close friend in an informal setting. They were sharing something with you and while they seemed to have your undivided attention—with all the nodding and uh-hums—in your mind you were formulating the response to that thing they said. To those words that snagged your attention and sparked a memory that became this story you could not wait to share. A series of unspoken words waiting in line to bounce from the trampoline of your tongue into the packed pool of conversation.
If the above feels based on a true story (join me in the hand raising), then probably without even realizing it—because it's painstakingly common and we all do it—you were not listening to understand nor to discover. You were listening for your turn to speak. You were waiting to be heard. Because...we all want to be heard.
An Act of Kindness
Have you given any thought to how you show up for others? And when I say ‘others’, I'm not talking about everyone (who has the energy, right?). I mean the people you care about, your loved ones, your people.
And I’m also referring to your everyday interactions. From navigating coffee talks in the morning with a forward gaze, resisting the gravitational pull from your phone to keep scrolling over your next clean beauty purchases (W3ll People anyone?), to turning your face away from the computer screen toward your spouse’s face, for whatever follows “today was awful.”
The way you show up for people who you care about might inevitably reflect on the way they show up for you. And this fast-paced living doesn’t make this self-reflection any easier. It barely allows some of us to pay attention to our own self-talk and to make sense of our own thoughts. Which, by the way, spend most of their time running around like energized toddlers in the playground of our minds.
All judgment aside (hello, humanity and imperfection) the art of active listening is demanding. In any scenario, it requires the full attention and emotional presence capable of taking any of us to the edge of exhaustion. However, with some basic notes to self and a little practice it is possible for anyone to become a more mindful, attentive listener when the moment, the person and the situation calls for it.
The Generosity and Practice of Showing Up for Others
Well, it doesn’t hurt to remember how phenomenal you feel when you have someone else’s complete attention and full presence. When you’re able to speak without interruptions. When the awkward pauses are not filled with a series of haphazard words, but are holding the space for you to continue expressing yourself.
Like everything, it starts with practice. And these are five actions to support you in building up those skills. From that deep talk with your besties, to a relationship housekeeping session with your partner, to that team meeting or feedback session with a colleague.
1. Be Present
Prepare for this interaction. A quick grounding practice like closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths in under a minute might do wonders for your focus. Keep your posture, body language and other non-verbal cues in check and eliminate distractions. Whenever possible disregard your phone, TV, and other devices (be sure to remain conscious that we all have diverse living situations).
2. Provide Silence and Space
Give the other person time to process and fully say what's on their mind. It’s about taking the time to observe, to read between the lines, and to notice the unspoken. It’s not only about not interrupting them mid-speech. And make friends with the uncomfortable, awkward silences—these may prove to be enlightening moments for either of you.
3. Provide Acknowledgement and Convey Understanding
Build empathy and connection through the nods, sounds, eye-contact and uh-hums. And if relevant, ask appropriately timed powerful questions. Trust your intuition and the flow of conversation to determine this.
4. Embrace a Beginners Mind
Remember that we tend to see things as we are, not as they are. So, make an effort to quiet your mind, to ask questions or make reflections rather than assuming you know better (from your own biases and experiences). Listen with curiosity and without judgment. I know, easier said than done.
5. Check Your Ego Coat and Bag of Needs at The Door
We’re often inclined to stop listening attentively because the volume of our desire to be heard is too loud. And when you decide to devote your attention to someone other than yourself, you’re touching base with your ego. It’s a challenge that involves reminding ourselves that this moment is all about being present for another person, not about seeking to get our own needs met.
A Note to Self
Remember to practice self-compassion. It’s unlikely you’ll be 100% focused all the time. Your mind will naturally and inevitably wander. And that’s OK, you’re still human. Just start training her to notice the wandering, and to come back.
And take care of your own process. As much as practicing deep listening and showing up for people you care about feeds your soul, or strengthens your purpose to become a better version of yourself (most days)—it’s necessary to find outlets that meet your need to be heard.
It could be via fulfilling conversations with a supportive friend, sessions with your therapist, counselor, or coach (and no, these professions aren’t interchangeable)—or through a creative outlet of some sort. You are the expert on you, and the choice is always yours.
Giving the Gift of Deep Listening
Being aware of the actions we can take to become better listeners and choosing to put them into practice, has the potential to strengthen our most cherished relationships. And developing the habit of active listening, when and with whom you determine, might unexpectedly contribute to your own healing process.
This piece was written and contributed by:
Jit is a PR & marketing person trained in journalism, health coaching and yoga—writing about most things wellness. She helps entrepreneurs PR the ef out of their superpowers, specializing in content strategy, copy makeovers and spotting PR-able angles.
She finds joy in a cup of coffee, in a nourishing read or an inspiring podcast, and in rediscovering paradise in her native Panama—where she lives with her husband, his son and their Shih Tzu, Valentina.