Do you ever tune out when someone else is talking? Checking out of a conversation and imagining our ‘to-do’ lists is normal, but it’s not necessarily a great strategy for building a healthy relationship.
The opposite of tuning out is active listening. Active listening is listening to understand a person’s message AND the feelings behind the message. There are three important ingredients for active listening:
Silence is often a taken-for-granted aspect of listening. Generally when we’re silent while someone else is talking, it’s only because we’re planning our next words. When someone is sharing a deeply personal story we tend to either: 1) reassure them it’s going to be okay; 2) fix the problem by giving them our sage wisdom and advice; or 3) match their story with one of our own.
But let’s turn the tables around for a moment. When you share a personal story with someone, how often do you find you simply want to vent? Do you find yourself thinking you don’t want another person’s solution, you just want to be heard? You want someone to hear your perspective with no strings attached?
Silence is the language of ‘no strings attached’ connection. While passive silence may not be an acceptable response when we’re looking for feedback, it has the ability to communicate “I hear you” without letting words muddle up the moment.
Words don’t always come out the right way the first time. This is true for ourselves and for others. When we are curious to learn more about a person or their message, it helps to ask questions to clarify what we are hearing.
For instance, if you are listening to a friend’s story and they tell you, “That was the worst experience of my whole life!” Active listening involves getting curious about why that particular experience was the worst by asking, “I’m curious, why was that the worst experience for you?” Getting curious opens up conversations and allows a discussion to go deeper.
You know when you’re just waiting for a break in someone else’s story so you can tell your own story? Yeah, active listening is the opposite of that.
In order to focus in on what another person is saying, it’s important to quiet your mind and concentrate on what is being said.
Your brain is hardwired to notice connections between your story and someone else’s story. Despite this, it’s important to not interrupt. Simply make a mental note of what you are relating to and file it away for another conversation. You can always come back to it later. (This blog article discusses the art of conversations from a more self-aware and engaged place.)
Another strategy to remain focused is repeating back to a person what you’ve heard. You don’t need to parrot back the exact wording. Reiterating what they’ve said in your own words is just as effective and will highlight that you’ve been listening attentively.
So try these three elements of silence, curiosity, and focus the next time you are listening. You will see a marked difference in the quality of your conversation and in the level of connection in your relationships!