Active listening is a choice. You must decide that the speaker is worth your total and undivided attention.
Nothing says ‘punch me in the face’ like pretending to listen
Imagine speaking to someone who’s never attentive to what you have to say. You make an effort to communicate effectively, but the other person just doesn’t seem to care. This person is either constantly looking at their phone, or interrupting you mid-sentence to tell you about something similar that happened to them that one time
You never really feel heard by this person, and find yourself having to constantly explain the same things over and over again. Not someone you’d look forward to working with, right?
Now imagine if that person was you.
Effective listening can be one of the most important skills we acquire in life. It helps us understand the people around us and makes them feel heard. It helps us see others’ perspectives and avoid conflicts. It builds trust and better relationships. As it turns out, we like to be around people who listen to us.
Think of workplace dynamics and the person everyone enjoys working with. Think of the person people turn to for help and advice. Yes, this person may be skilled and experienced, but that isn’t why people are drawn to them. It is because they listen. It makes them great collaborators, great dispensers of advice, and just plain fun to talk to.
One of the key components of effective listening is Active Listening, which is as its name implies, listening actively.
Snap back to reality
Active listening is a choice. You must decide that the speaker is worth your total and undivided attention. If you don’t, anything that can distract you, will distract you.
One of the biggest problems people make is framing replies while they should still be actively listening.
An active listener fully concentrates on the speaker’s messages and zones out all other forms of distractions, external and internal.
External distractions come in all shapes and sizes. Other colleagues, background noise, pretty ladies (don’t lie) and the sound of incoming WhatsApps threaten to steal away your attention. Fight them, or risk missing out on important details and alienating your speaker.
Some tips for you to eliminate external noise:
- Put your phone on silent. Unless you are expecting an important call, it won’t kill you to give the other person half an hour of your time. The sound of notifications distracts both parties. Even if you feel fine, the other person may feel guilty for keeping you from checking what could be an important message.
- Look them in the eye. This puts the speaker in focus and also tells them ‘hey, I’m being paid attention’. Just make sure to look away every once in a while, and for God’s sake don’t bite your lower lip.
- Find a quiet place. This is especially true if they’re more on the reserved side and tend to get drowned out. Find a cafe, an empty meeting room, or just wait til the office empties out before you have your chat.
Then you have internal distractions: your own thoughts. Our brains are surprisingly bad at multi-tasking, and one of the biggest problems people make is framing replies while they should still be actively listening. You assume you already know what the other person is going through and what they are going to say.
This gives you absolutely no benefit. Unless you plan on interrupting them, you’ll still have to let them finish talking. So you might as well listen intently, and find that your assumptions were not as accurate as you thought.
Listen with your eyes
Active listening also involves noticing body language and facial expressions. Have you ever shared your experiences with someone who was motionless and expressionless the whole time? Yeah, unnerving.
Mirroring body language and facial expressions show the speaker that you’re getting what he or she is trying to convey. It shows that you feel the same feelings as them when telling the story. It puts them at ease and facilitates openness, even frankness. Someone once likened showing others empathy to giving them a psychological hug.
Mirroring also helps you enter their minds. This does not mean assuming. It means trying to gain a deeper understanding of where they are coming from, but letting them have the final say (since they are leading and you are following).
How does one mirror another person without looking like those creepy twins from The Shining? We have a list of suggestions.
- Start small: tone of voice. Do they speak confidently and fluently, or do they hesitate and lose their train of thought? Try to match their speaking style best as you can.
- Notice their sitting positions. Are their heads tilted sideways? Are they leaning forwards, resting their chin on their palms? Follow suit, but gradually, or you’ll look like you’re making fun of them.
Bonus tip: If you feel particularly observant, try to make a deliberate adjustment to your own sitting position and try to notice if they match it. If they do, especially multiple times, they must feel a real connection with you.
Or It just means they’ve also read this article.
Respond with tact
You ask someone how their day went. They proceed to spend the next ten minutes detailing everything that happened with a narrative that would make Tolkien proud. You nod and smile to encourage them as they relive the horrors of their slightly burnt fried rice and the oh-so-very rude waiter Suddenly, they stop, completely out of breath, and look to you expectantly.
Oh crap.It’s time to respond.
Time to fill up that bubble with speech.
In general, you’d have to try very hard to mess up a reply, provided you’ve been actively listening.
What you can do:
- Ask a question that forces them to zoom in on a particular part of their narrative.
- Ask them how a particular event made them feel (but phrase it more like a normal question, not a psychiatric evaluation).
- Challenge their views and opinions politely.
- Summarise what they said in your own words and ask if you’ve got it right.
- If you have faith in yourself and the moment seems right, a humorous statement never goes amiss.
What you should not do:
- Share a similar story that happened to you, only it’s better than theirs.
- Change the topic.
- Not respond (oh God, please no, just ask them how they feel).
- Make a humorous statement that does go amiss. Read the situation clearly, folks.
Make someone’s day with active listening
There’s a lot more that goes on behind effective listening, and this world can definitely benefit from having more people listen to one another. Active Listening isn’t all there is to becoming a complete listener, but it certainly puts you on the right path to being there for people when they need an ear.
Check out necole for an in-depth look at how you can be an effective listener. You still might not remember 100% of what they say to you every time, but you’ll at least find that you understand people around you more and that they in turn enjoy being understood.
Watch this short video in Hokkien on the power of necole: