Listening skills are an essential part of healthy communication and are necessary components for building lasting relationships. Truly feeling heard is a powerful experience. It makes you feel cared for, validated, and important. We are faced with so many distractions in our lives that when someone sits down and really listens, it can make you feel really connected. And if you feel like you are sharing an important part of yourself, you want to know that the other person is listening.
Unfortunately, knowing the importance of listening doesn’t obliterate the barriers that get in the way of active listening. We can have the best of intentions when we are engaged in conversation, but we are constantly—consciously or unconsciously—fighting barriers to listening.
For example, we’ve all been guilty of pseudo-listening, or half-listening. It happens with my daughter, Kelly, and me, and we know when the other person is doing it. Our exchange goes something like this: When I’m midstory and I’ve just said something that she would normally respond to, but doesn’t, I know that I don’t have her full attention. So I say, “Kelly, are you listening to me?” She responds, “Yes, I heard every word you said,” and then she repeats every word that she heard me say. But it’s clear that she hasn’t processed the content of my words; she heard them but she can’t give me any meaningful feedback without thinking about it longer or having me repeat what I said.
Start noticing when you are listening and when you are pseudo-listening. Many things can get in the way of your ability to stay focused on what the other person is trying to communicate to you. Most of us have been in an icebreaker situation where everyone is required to stand up and say a little bit about him-or herself. At the last event that I attended we were asked to complete this sentence: “If you really knew me.…” After hearing this announcement, every person in the room was only partially engaged in the listening process. Our individual attentions were primarily focused on rehearsing (in our heads) what each of us was going to say about ourselves (which might change after hearing what the people who spoke before us said), judging what the other participants were saying (along with additional judgment, such as “Did he get dressed in the dark?”), comparing ourselves to others (“She’s so clever!”), or thinking about our plans for the evening (“I am going to need a big cocktail when this is over!”). We’ve all done it. And the blocks to listening get worse when we are having a conversation or in a situation that makes us especially anxious or uncomfortable – such as dating or a romantic relationship where our fear of being left can get triggered.
We all use listening blocks—knowingly or unknowingly. It’s a bad habit and a roadblock to establishing healthy communication and building meaningful relationships. Becoming aware of these listening blocks will get you one step closer to healthy communication and developing active listening skills.
When you are an active listener, you are not only tuned in to what the other person is saying, but you are responding with words, body language, and eye contact that indicate that you are listening. The other person knows that you are paying attention because you will be asking questions and givingfeedback without judgment.
Here are three steps you can take to become an active listener:
Step 1: Paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is using your own words to state what the other person has said. It is important that you paraphrase every time you are having a conversation about something that bringing up fear and anxiety, because doing so will stop miscommunication in the moment. False assumptions (such as: “He says he was working late last night; I bet he was hooking up with someone else”) will be eliminated instantly. Also, paraphrasing is a useful tool for remembering conversations afterward. This makes for clean communication that eliminates misunderstandings.
Step 2: Clarifying
Clarifying is an extension of paraphrasing. It involves asking questions until you have a clear understanding of what is being communicated to you. This step allows you to get more information to fill in the details of what is being communicated to you. It also sends the message that you are actively engaged in the communication process.
Step 3: Feedback
The final step is to take the information that you’ve acquired from your conversation and talk about your reaction in a nonjudgmental way. This is called feedback. It’s an opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings. Your experience might be that you understood the message that was communicated to you but you are unclear about how the person is feeling. You could say, “I understand what you’re thinking, but I’m not sure I understand how you’re feeling about it.”
Giving feedback is helpful to the other person too because he can better understand the effectiveness of his communication and quickly correct any misperceptions or miscommunications. There are three important rules for giving feedback: It must be (1) immediate, (2) honest (this isn’t a license to be hurtful), and (3) supportive.
Ultimately, active listening will eliminate many of the barriers that have prevented you from hearing what is being said in the present moment. It is a skill that will help you avoid getting trapped in the same vicious cycle – whether it’s mistrust, feeling misunderstood or unappreciated, or the fear of being abandoned.