What Is Engaged Listening?

Karen Doll, Author
Updated on July 5, 2021

When engaged in conversation, most of us focus on our own thoughts and what we will say next. This habit is actually quite distracting and gets in the way of better understanding what others are communicating. Improving in this area entails engaged listening, paying close attention to what others are saying and truly seeking to understand their point of view.

woman in conversation listening intently

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 others’ experience builds trust in relationships and is commonly overlooked. Simply taking the time to acknowledge the feelings and emotions of others can also prove to be a diffusing intervention, especially when dealing with conflict. Demonstrating genuine interest shows that the listener values them as a person.[1]

Obstacles to Engaged Listening

These days, we’re faced with frequent interruptions and distractions through our devices. Research shows that most of us are so connected to checking our phones that we do it automatically without even realizing it. Since this “checking” leads to a quick increase in dopamine, the “feel good” neurochemical, this behavior has been compared to an addiction.[2] To avoid the temptation of focusing on your phone rather than on your listening, make sure your phone is placed face down or out of reach with the ring tone silenced.

Research also supports the limitations of our brains’ operating systems. We think we can multi-task and focus on several things at once, when in actual fact when we attempt 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. This means that it is not just your phone or other device that may distract you from engaged listening. To become a star listener, focus on your conversation and nothing else.[3]

Mindset Changes for Becoming a More Engaged Listener

Developing your ability to become an active and engaged listener requires practice and intention.[4] Try some of these techniques to get started:

Withhold Judgment

Conduct some experiments for 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 Tone and Emotion

Dial your attention in so that you can “read between the lines” and understand what they are communicating in addition to what they are saying.

Resist the Urge to Hijack Conversations

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 point in the discussion.

Become Aware of Your 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 redirect yourself back to the conversation if you are feeling intense.

Tips to Show You Are an of Engaged Listener

In addition to the aforementioned changes you can make to your mindset, there are also techniques you can employ to help give the other person the sense that you are an engaged listener. These tips can get them to open up and draw you to deeper into the conversation.

Prepare Some Questions

For example, seek clarification of your understanding of what they are saying such as “,what I am hearing is.” Also, ask questions such as “tell me more about that,” or “I’m curious to hear more about this.”

Ask Open Ended Questions

These are preferable to questions 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.

Make Sure There Is a Balance of Give and Take

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 Out for Common Interests

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 …”

Use Non-Verbal Signs

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 that you can avoid behaviors like yawning or looking bored.

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming a more active and engaged listener will lead you to enjoy closer connections, increased trust, stronger relationships, more interesting discussions, and opportunities to exchange ideas.[5] While it certainly does require some work, and it may not be in your nature, you’ll likely find that it’s well worth it to become an engaged listener.


References

  1. Bodie, G. D., Vickery, A. J., Cannava, K., & Jones, S. M. (2015). The Role of “Active Listening” in Informal Helping Conversations: Impact on Perceptions of Listener Helpfulness, Sensitivity, and Supportiveness and Discloser Emotional Improvement. Western Journal of Communication, 79(2), 151–173. https://doi.org/10.1080/10570314.2014.943429
  2. Lowe-Calverley, E., & Pontes, H. M. (2020). Challenging the Concept of Smartphone Addiction: An Empirical Pilot Study of Smartphone Usage Patterns and Psychological Well-BeingCyberpsychology, behavior and social networking23(8), 550–556. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2019.0719
  3. Koch, I., Poljac, E., Müller, H., & Kiesel, A. (2018). Cognitive structure, flexibility, and plasticity in human multitasking-An integrative review of dual-task and task-switching researchPsychological bulletin144(6), 557–583. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000144
  4. Bletscher, C. G., & Lee, S. (2020). The Impact of Active Empathetic Listening on an Introductory Communication Course. College Teaching, 69(3), 161–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2020.1841079
  5. Kawamichi, H., Yoshihara, K., Sasaki, A. T., Sugawara, S. K., Tanabe, H. C., Shinohara, R., Sugisawa, Y., Tokutake, K., Mochizuki, Y., Anme, T., & Sadato, N. (2015). Perceiving active listening activates the reward system and improves the impression of relevant experiencesSocial neuroscience10(1), 16–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2014.954732
Karen Doll, Author

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.