10 tips for active listening

Active listening

Listening is an important skill in all areas of life, whether you’re supporting a loved one through health problems, dealing with colleagues or in family relationships. But most of us aren’t as good at listening as we’d like to think.

When we show we’re really listening, it’s much more rewarding for the person talking to you, and you’ll get more out of it too. This is called active listening, and it can help avoid misunderstanding and reduce the potential for conflict.

Here are 10 easy ways to make your communication more effective and make the other person feel more valued.

1. Face the speaker and have eye contact

Eye contact is an important part of face to face conversation. Too much eye contact can be intimidating, though, so adapt this to the situation you’re in. Try breaking eye contact every five seconds or so, or to show you’re listening attentively, look at one eye for five seconds, then another eye for five seconds, then switch to looking at their mouth. When you look away, looking to the side or up is better than looking down, which can seem like you want to close the conversation.

Check your posture and make sure it’s open – avoid crossed arms or crossed legs, which can make you look ‘closed’ or defensive. Leaning slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting can show that you’re listening – as can a slight tilt of your head or resting your head on your hand.

2. “Listen” to non-verbal cues too

Pay attention to what the other person is saying with their body language 

Facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures can tell you just as much as what is being said in words. Pay attention to what the other person is saying with their body language - are they smiling, for example, or are their arms crossed defensively, or are they rubbing their eyes as if they're tired or upset. Even on the phone, you can learn a lot from the other person’s voice, which might sound subdued or upbeat.

3. Don’t interrupt

 Being interrupted is frustrating for the other person – it gives the impression that you think you’re more important, or that you don’t have time for what they have to say. If you are naturally a quicker thinker or speaker, force yourself to slow down so that the other person can express themselves. Remember, a pause or a few seconds of silence doesn’t mean that you have to jump in. Letting the other person speak will make it easier for you to understand their message, too.

Even interruptions that respond to something that they’ve said can be distracting if it means the conversation gets sidetracked from what they were trying to tell you about. If this does happen, steer the conversation back to “So, you were telling me about…”.

4. Listen without judging, or jumping to conclusions

If you start reacting emotionally to what’s being said, then it can get in the way of listening to what is said next. Try to focus on listening. Equally, don’t assume that you know what’s going to be said next.

5. Don’t start planning what to say next

You can’t listen and prepare at the same time.

Active listening between family6. Show that you’re listening

Nod your head, smile and make small noises like “yes” and “uh huh”, to show that you’re listening and encourage the speaker to continue. Don’t look at your watch, fidget or play with your hair or fingernails.

7. Don’t impose your opinions or solutions

It’s not always easy, but lending a listening, supportive ear can be much more rewarding than telling someone what they should do. When a loved one has health problems is a time when they probably want to tell you how they’re feeling, and get things off their chest, rather than have lots of advice about what they should be doing.

In other areas of life too, most people prefer to come to their own solutions. If you really must share your brilliant solution, ask first if they want to hear it – say something like “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”

8. Stay focused

If you're finding it difficult to focus on what someone is saying, try repeating their words in your head as they say them – this will reinforce what they’re saying and help you to concentrate. Try to shut out distractions like other conversations going on in the room. And definitely don’t look at your phone.

9. Ask questions

Asking relevant questions can show that you’ve been listening and help clarify what has been said.

If you’re not sure if you’ve understood correctly, wait until the speaker pauses and then say something like “Did you mean that x…” Or “I’m not sure if I understood what you were saying about…”

You should also use open questions where you can, like “How did that make you feel?” “What did you do next?”

10. Paraphrase and summarise

Repeating what has been said really shows you’ve been paying attention, and allows the speaker to correct you if you haven’t understood

Sometimes called reflecting, this is repeating what has been said to show that you understand it. This may seem awkward at first, but really shows you’ve been paying attention, and allows the speaker to correct you if you haven’t understood correctly.

If you’re not sure how to do this, try starting a sentence with: "Sounds like you are saying…”

And remember….practice makes perfect

Old habits are hard to break, so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to become an active listener. Try spending a week in which you summarise the main points or outcomes at the end of each conversation or meeting. This will help you get into the habit.

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