What is active listening? Learn how to be a better listener

How much attention do we really pay our loved ones when they’re talking to us? Claire Munnings explores how active listening can transform our relationships…

What is active listening?

We’re all guilty of trying to do too much at once – and that includes listening. Gone are the days when we used to get each other’s undivided attention; instead, we’re stacking the dishwasher while our partner talks about the bills, or replying to a work text while our children tell us about their day. But what repercussions could this have for our relationships and how is it affecting our sense of compassion?

Advertisement

Many experts believe it could be having more of an impact than we think. “Listening can be profoundly powerful,” explains Dr Aria Campell-Danesh, a behavioral change psychologist and mindfulness specialist. “When we listen to others, we’re offering them respect. We’re saying that their voices are important and should be heard, and we’re valuing them. Very few things are more validating, comforting or empowering than feeling listened to and one of the easiest ways to improve the health of our relationships is by actively listening.”

What is active listening?

First coined in the 1950s by two American psychologists, the phrase ‘active listening’ is often used in training for salespeople or counsellors, but it’s an important skill that we can all benefit from.

“When we’re actively listening we’re offering someone our full focus and attention, and showing them that we are hearing what they are saying with more than just our ears,” says Kate Moyle, a psychosexual and relationship therapist who helps couples struggling in today’s busy world. “We offer eye-contact, verbal cues and body language and allow silence for the speaker to think and reflect.”

Active listening involves consciously paying attention to someone in order to learn, understand and deepen our connection with them and requires concentration – a skill we’ve become notoriously bad at. Data shows that our attention spans are narrowing – and in terms of listening, recent research has found that the majority of us struggle to maintain focus after just seven minutes of serious chat.

But, all is not lost. Understanding more about our habits and how they’re formed can help in improving our skills. According to the experts, there seems to be two main issues affecting our ability to listen well. First up is our incessant and misplaced desire to be doing more than one thing at once. “Our society is obsessed with maximising productivity and ‘listening’ to someone while doing something else appears to be a sound strategy in order to achieve more,” says Dr Aria. “However, we may think that we’re multi-tasking but in reality we’re simply multi-switching from one task to another. This is cognitively draining and often less efficient overall.” This means our friends, colleagues and family don’t get the full attention they deserve – and it’s something they’ll realise too. After all, we all know how frustrating it can be talking to someone whose mind is obviously elsewhere.

There’s also the fact that, to put it in very brash terms, we can be too self-obsessed to really take note of what others are saying. “Our own agenda may also stand in the way of being a good listener, as we’re often thinking about our own response rather than truly listening,” Dr Aria explains. “We fall into the habit of focusing more on our own voice than the other person in the conversation. We’re not fully listening to the individual in front of us. We’re presuming that we know what they’re going to say and we’re already formulating our reply, particularly when arguing.”

It’s not just when discussions get heated, though. Thinking about ourselves is something we often do when our friends are sharing problems – it may be that we’re considering what we can say to make them (and ourselves) feel better, or how we can relate our own experiences to what they are going through. But, although this usually comes from a wish to help, it’s not always what people want or need. Interestingly, many people who think they’re good listeners are actually just good talkers – and there’s a key difference.

How to become a better listener

The first step to being a better listener, then, is to simply stop talking. “Often in everyday conversation we jump in with questions or comments which are based on our own experiences,” says Kate. “There is nothing wrong with that, but with active listening your position is more neutral and you should try not to take sides.” Don’t offer advice before being asked, and try to quench the impulse to explain events away, downplay someone’s sadness or turn someone’s anger around. Instead, just accept their feelings and ask them to explain more. “Practice encouragement and curiosity,” Kate advises. “Use verbal and non-verbal cues to encourage the speaker to continue showing that you are paying attention and to find out more.”

Listening without judgement and with an effort to really comprehend someone is also a key part of active listening and can help reduce misunderstandings and arguments. “When we’re actively listening, we’re paying attention to someone’s words, as well as their tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and behaviour. We’re consciously trying to understand the position and perspective of another person, without judgement. This increases the likelihood that we’ll have a more accurate understanding of their message,” says Dr Aria. “When we do not fully understand something, we tend to judge it,” he adds. “We can easily fall into the trap of making value judgements about the other person. We move away from comprehension into misconstruing, oversimplifying or attacking, which neither serves others nor us.”

And the most important thing? Remove any distractions around you, including your phone. “Turn all of your tech onto ‘do not disturb’ mode,” advises Kate. “We’re constantly being notified by our devices that something else is going on, and it’s distracting. We’re all guilty of being attached to our devices 24/7, and it’s healthy to have a break from them sometimes.”

“Feeling heard is an important part of feeling acknowledged in relationships with anyone,” Kate concludes. “When we feel listened to, heard, understood and respected, it creates a more open space where we can express ourselves fully, be more vulnerable and more intimate with others.” Which, in turn, will help you to create better connections with your loved ones and improve your own emotional wellbeing. Never has the phrase ‘I’m all ears’ had more meaning.

What is active listening?
Photo by Unsplash/Prisclla Du Preez

3 ways to improve your active listening skills

Want to improve your active listening skills and become a better listener? Dr Aria has the following advice…

1

Be attentive

Rather than multi-tasking or preparing what you’re going to say next, pause and give your undivided attention to the person’s words and body language.

2

Be curious

View this as an opportunity to truly discover another perspective, connect with someone and better understand that person. Instead of trying to change their mind, see if you can be open to learning something new. Ask open-ended questions, try to stand in that person’s shoes, and relay your understanding so they have a chance to clarify their message.

3

Be kind

When discussions heat up, it’s easy to begin to throw in insults, bring up past events, or attack the other person. Instead of doing this, think about the positive qualities of the other person and remind yourself that this is a good partner, friend or colleague who is trying his or her best. Instead of going down rabbit holes, stay focused on the subject at hand, with as much compassion as possible.

Meet the experts

Dr Aria Campell-Danesh

Dr Aria is a behavior change psychologist, mindfulness specialist and the author of A Mindful Year. For more information visit dr-aria.com

Kate Moyle

Kate is an accredited relationship therapist and psycho-sexologist. She specialises in working with those who are struggling with their relationships. Follow her on Instagram at @katemoyletherapy or find out more at katemoyle.co.uk

Advertisement

Looking for more wellbeing advice? Take a look at our feature about how to stay connected when friends are far away, learn how to forgive yourself and what do when you’re feeling overwhelmed.