Think about a time you felt misunderstood by somebody. Did you defend yourself? Correct them? Or simply disengage? Regardless of your response, you likely didn’t feel comfortable with them.
Now think of how it feels to be understood — you can relax, you want to open up, you feel more trusting. When you listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard, they are more likely to share information with you. And when you are actively listening, you are also more likely to take it in.
In my training as a psychologist, I spent a lot of time learning how to actively listen. I can tell you from years of experience that having a productive dialogue is not possible without active listening.
The 1st active listening skill is nonverbal attending
Nonverbal attending means giving someone your full attention without speaking. Here are some of the basics:
Keep your body open to the other person. Try to be relaxed but attentive. If you’re sitting, lean forward a bit rather than slouching back.
Maintain moderate levels of eye contact. Look at the speaker but not like you’re in a staring contest with them.
Use simple gestures to communicate to the other person that you’re listening and encouraging them to continue. Head nods are one way — just don’t do it continuously. Occasionally say “Mm-hmm” to communicate encouragement.
The final key to nonverbal attending is staying silent. But remember: You can’t listen very well if you’re talking. In fact, if you rearrange the letters of the word “listen,” it spells “silent.” I can’t believe it took me 20 years of teaching to discover this, but it’s a useful reminder!
Offering somebody uninterrupted time to talk, even a few minutes, is a generous gift that we seldom give each other. It doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut for hours and hours, but I encourage you to see how long you can simply listen to somebody without wanting to interrupt.
Some people find the most difficult part of listening is not talking. There’s a deep humility in listening, because your focus is on understanding the other person rather than on saying everything that comes into your mind. Your aim is to understand and help the speaker feel understood, and reserve your speech for what moves you closer to either of these goals.
The 2nd active listening skill is reflecting
Reflecting means repeating or rephrasing key content or meaning from the other person.
A reflection communicates that you heard what the other person said. Rather than saying, “I hear you,” you show you’ve heard them by sharing back what they said. It also confirms that you have an accurate understanding of their thoughts.
If you’re a little off target, it gives them an opportunity to correct you. This can be useful if you didn’t quite understand what they were saying.
For example, let’s say a friend tells you, “I just came from a PTA meeting, and I’m so frustrated with charter schools! They’re draining money from the school system which is already stretched, so we don’t have the funds to support students and teachers. Plus, they’re weakening the teachers’ union. I wish the charter school parents would put all that energy into supporting existing schools instead of creating new ones.”
If you said, “You think charter schools are ruining the educational system,” your friend could clarify, “Well, not exactly ruining it as much as creating challenges for the existing schools.”
Now you may be wondering, “Won’t that be weird to just repeat back what they’re saying?” Or you may think, “They just said it. How can it be helpful for me to say it back?”
Reflecting typically feels more awkward for the person doing it — i.e., you — than for the person hearing it. What I know, and what’s supported by considerable research, is that people like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them.
Just don’t repeat them back word for word. Use fewer words and summarize rather than transcribe. I call this “nuggetizing.” Get at the nugget of what they’re saying, and say it briefly so you don’t interrupt the flow. Focus on something that seems meaningful to the other person; pull out an idea that gets to the heart of what they’re saying. You could preface your reflection with one of these: “I hear that you’re saying,” “It sounds as though,” “So….”
The crucial role of reflection is to help people feel heard, and to make sure you understand them. It’s more important for you to simply be present than to be brilliant.
The 3rd active listening skill is asking open-ended questions
As you listen, questions will pop into your head, and you’ll want answers. While asking questions is very appealing, they have the potential to interrupt the other person’s thinking, shift the focus to your agenda, interfere with connection and derail a conversation.
To use questions effectively, keep a few things in mind:
Always attend and reflect before you ask a question. Understanding the other person and helping them feel understood provides a strong foundation. If you haven’t communicated that you heard someone, they may not be inclined to open up to your question.
You might feel like asking questions is how you best communicate your interest. That may be true but if you attend and reflect first, a question says, “I’m interested in what you just said” rather than “I’m interested in your response to what I want to hear about.”
When you do ask a question to promote dialogue, it’s most effective to use questions that are open-ended and cannot be answered simply with a “yes” or “no”. For example, rather than asking “Do you think public charter schools should receive the same level of funding as other public schools?” which can be answered “yes” or “no,” you might ask, “How do you think public charter schools should be funded?” Open-ended questions promote elaboration and exploration.
Just as in reflecting, you want to keep your questions simple. Resist the urge to try to guide or impress the other person with your exceptionally astute question.
One of my favorite and most concise ways to ask questions is simply to repeat back a key word with an upward intonation. For example, if somebody says, “I just feel like the world is so dangerous,” you can say “Dangerous?” By using the upward intonation, the word becomes a question. It says, “Tell me more about how the world is dangerous.”
It’s important to stay neutral in both tone and content. Judgment and opinion can come across loud and clear in your tone. Saying “Is that where you’re going on vacation?” is more contentious than “Tell me how you decided to go there for vacation” (which is a statement that’s really a question).
It’s also important to think about when to ask your question. Don’t interrupt the other person just to ask something.
The final thing to keep in mind about attending, reflecting and open-ended questions is that these tools are intended to help promote understanding by developing greater connection. Connection is the most important thing.
So if the tools aren’t working in a situation or if you’re able to have connection without these tools, don’t force them. That said, don’t underestimate them either. They’re backed by research and experience, and they can help you to navigate the unpredictable, challenging waters of dialogue with others.