Active Listening: What It Means + How To Be A Better Listener

Unrecognizable female friends having cup of tea in bar terrace while having conversation
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Have you ever found yourself fidgeting with your phone, averting eye contact, or struggling to ask relevant follow-up questions during a conversation? With so many internal and external distractions, it's not uncommon to stray from focus. However, that doesn't make a lack of listening any less hurtful to the speaker. If you're hoping to improve your listening skills, the most effective way is through active listening.

What is active listening?

Active listening is the process of listening with complete, uninterrupted engagement. "Rather than internally rehearsing what they might say next or drifting into judgment, the listener is completely attentive," licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, tells mbg. 

To assure the speaker that they're still following, an active listener will provide verbal confirmation ("uh-huh") and nonverbal cues (head nods, eye contact, etc.) along the way. "Someone who is skilled in active listening will be able to do this at times that don't interrupt the speaker's train of thought but rather helps them to fully express what they wish to say," Leeds explains. 

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Why is active listening important?

Active listening can help make the other person feel more comfortable and cared for in the conversation. "This kind of an approach promotes the experience of safety for another person," psychologist and communications expert Joan Rosenberg, Ph.D., says. "And when someone feels safer and understood, they open up."

A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found patients feel more supported and in control when physicians implemented active listening skills. While active listening is vital in a patient-physician setting, it's just as important in other relationships, including romantic, professional, familial, or friendly. 

"When used in close relationships, active listening can foster an even deeper level of emotional intimacy," Leeds says. "Essentially, it provides the speaker with the space and attunement to be able to be vulnerable, which can enhance relationships both in times of peace as well as conflict." 

Examples of active listening skills. 

These six "microskills" of active listening were originally created by Allan Ivey, Ed.D., as a way to teach counseling techniques that can be used in everyday life. According to Rosenberg, the two most important elements are open-ended questions and reflective feelings—these help foster deeper, more trusting relationships:

1. Attend to the other person. 

This first step tends to come pretty naturally to people, Rosenberg says. It includes making eye contact, nodding your head, leaning in, and generally showing interest in the conversation through nonverbal cues. 

When listening, pay attention to their words, their body language, and their tone of voice, Leeds suggests. "Then, the listener can ask questions to help them better understand, or provide comments that let the speaker know that their message is landing with them."

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2. Ask open-ended questions. 

An open-ended question is one that can't be answered with yes or no. "Employ the journalistic techniques of who, what, where, how, and when," Rosenberg writes in her book 90 Seconds to a Life You Love, though she notes to be careful with how you phrase "why" questions, as they can sometimes invite defensiveness.

Examples include: 

  • How did you react to that experience?
  • Why do you think you've been feeling that way?
  • What do you need right now?
  • What can I do to make our relationship better?

"Asking open-ended questions and providing space for them to be answered fully helps people explore their experience more deeply," Rosenberg tells mbg.

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3. Summarize the facts. 

After the speaker is done talking, repeat the words back to them. Whether you're paraphrasing what they said or stating it word for word, this shows you actually absorbed what they had to say. 

Researchers call this the "echo effect," and one study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology found people who do this are better at building likability, rapport, and safety.

4. Reflect feelings. 

Reflecting feelings is the act of observing someone's emotions and stating them. This type of response offers validation for the speaker's emotions, which allows them to fully experience it. "Reflecting feelings helps someone feel heard, and feeling heard helps them feel understood," Rosenberg tells mbg.

Though you may feel inclined to solve their problem, or ask them how they're feeling, always put the observed feelings first, Rosenberg suggests. This might sound like: 

  • I understand why that would be scary. 
  • That's so exciting! 
  • It seems like that left you feeling sad. 

If you make the wrong assumption, the speaker will correct you, which then makes room for further conversation and understanding. 

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5. Allow for silence. 

After responding to a person's feeling or feeling tone, allow for a pause. Many people will continue talking to avoid awkward silences or to move the conversation forward, but Rosenberg says to wait a bit. "A few seconds at least," she says. "Enough to let an experience be felt. Enough to let the words land."

6. Be willing to confront someone. 

Using the word confrontation tends to evoke a feeling of conflict, but that doesn't always have to be the case. In fact, Rosenberg says confrontation is just a statement of observation or a description of experience. 

For example: "I want to talk to you about something that's important to me, but every time I talk about this particular topic, or topics like it, you diminish my experience and that's really hurtful. I really want you to hear me through." 

According to Rosenberg, confrontation should always come from a place of being positive, kind, and well intended.

Active listening exercises: how to be a better listener:

  • Don't plan out your response while the speaker's talking. Just listen.
  • Provide nonverbal cues so the speaker knows you're following.
  • Avoid looking at your phone, your watch, or other distractions.
  • Look directly at the person speaking.
  • Take inventory of the speaker's body language.
  • Take note of the speaker's feelings/emotions.
  • Repeat what you heard back to the speaker.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Make room for silence.
  • Don't interrupt the speaker.
  • State any observations you made.
  • Enter the conversation without judgment.

The bottom line.

Active listening creates intimacy in relationships by promoting a safe and trusting environment for the speaker. Implementing the six skills mentioned above, as well as the active listening exercises, can help those you speak to feel more understood.

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