In the modern age of many distractions, active and engaged listening is a skill most people could afford to improve. Paying close attention to what others are saying and truly seeking to understand their point of view is a challenge and requires effort and intention. During conversations, most people are focused on what their next comment or is going to be or what they will say next. Focusing on our own thoughts and beliefs during discussion is actually quite distracting and pulls us away from gaining deep understanding into the others’ point of view.
We are also faced with frequent interruptions and distractions through our devices. Research supports that most people are so connected to checking their phones that they do it automatically without even realizing it. This behavior has been compared to an addiction, as such “checking” leads to a quick increase in dopamine – the “feel good” neurochemical.
Research also supports the limitations of our brains’ operating systems. We think we can multi-task and focus on several things at once, while brain research indicates that in attempting to do so, our cognitive capacity decreases significantly. Scientists report that our brains are not wired to process multiple inputs effectively at the same time.
Pausing before responding, asking insightful questions, clarifying others’ points, and validating their feelings are all behaviors of active listening, which is a component of engaged listening. Expressing recognition and empathy toward their experience builds trust in relationships and is commonly overlooked. Simply taking the time to acknowledge the feelings and emotions of others can prove to be a diffusing intervention, especially when dealing with conflict. Demonstrating genuine interest in facilitating this understanding shows that the listener values them as a person.
In order to develop your ability to be an active and engaged listener, it requires practice and intention. Try some of these techniques:
Conduct some experiments of entering a conversation with the intention of listening and understanding, while withholding your own judgments, opinions, or comments. Doing so will require asking clarifying questions and fostering curiosity to understand where the other person is coming from. Challenge yourself to see how long the discussion lasts without you inserting your own judgments and statements. Make observations of what that experience was like for you.
Practice mindfulness and being present in the moment. There are many ways to develop mindfulness; a common example is practicing meditation. There are many ways to develop a stronger sense of inner calm, which will help us be more attentive to others.
Focus on the speaker’s words, yet also their tone and emotion. Hone in on what you are observing and noticing beyond obvious cues. Dial your attention in so you can read between the lines in what they are saying.
Watch out for hi-jacking a conversation. If someone is telling you a story, beware of interrupting and inserting a similar experience you once had. There is a time for sharing, yet in order to be an engaged listener, it will require saving your story for a later time in the discussion.
Develop insight into your own emotional responses. Recognize when you are having a certain reaction to what they are saying without letting it determine your response. Being an attentive and engaged listener does not require you to agree with the speaker’s point of view. You may feel a strong reaction or may disagree with what they are saying. When this occurs, it can be tempting to chime in based on an emotional reaction. Provide sufficient space for the speaker to express themselves, which can be challenging if you are having a charged internal response. Consider ways to take a deep breath or re-direct yourself back to the conversation if you are feeling intense.
Watch your body language. Express open non-verbal behaviors, such as nodding and saying brief comments of affirmation to confirm you are listening. Demonstrate open body language, such as avoiding crossed arms or physically withdrawing from the discussion. Eye contact is also an important non-verbal cue to convey you are an engaged listener. Avoid looking around or getting distracted with your surroundings. Appearing alert can be helpful as well, so as to avoid behaviors like yawning or looking bored.
Prepare some clarifying questions and ways to provide feedback. For example, seek clarification of your understanding and translation of what they are saying such as, “what I am hearing is.” Ask questions to gain deeper understanding such as “tell me more about that,” or “I’m curious to hear more about this.”
Ask open ended questions, rather than those that require a one word answer, such as yes or no. This can lead to deeper dialogue and more avenues for continued conversation. A yes or no answer is often a dead end.
Healthy communication also requires a balance of give and take. To take it a step further to more engaged listening, consider the following ideas:
Look for opportunities to build on what the person said and connect it to your own experience. For example, “I love hearing about your …., especially the part about ….It reminds me of my experience about …and I’m hearing some similarities.”
Listen for interests in common. For example, “I am wondering how you got involved in …I would love to hear more about your experience. I also have similar interests in …”
Becoming a more active and engaged listener will lead to stronger connections, increased trust, and interesting discussions and opportunities to exchange ideas. You will find benefit in becoming an engaged listener!
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.