Hearing and listening are different things. Hearing is passive; sounds come to us through our ears and we notice them. Listening, however, requires the brain to get involved. It’s a learned skill because it requires concentration, interpretation, and interaction. To really listen, we have to be present in the moment.
In our busy world and with so much on our minds, it can be challenging to actively listen when a friend, co-worker, or family member wants to have a conversation with us. We are often thinking about or doing other things while someone else is talking—ever realize you’ve been asked a question and you have no idea what was said to make a response? We may pay more attention to conversations we deem “important,” but for everyday conversations we have with family, friends, co-workers, it’s easy to “check out.” If we’d like to be more active listeners, it’s a good idea to practice being aware and present for those people in our lives.
Here are some ways to facilitate conscious, active listening:
- Determine whether you are able to give your full attention when someone wants to have a talk. If not, let them know. For example, “Can I call you back in 10 minutes? I’m finishing up this task and then I can give you my full attention.” If the conversation is going to take more time than you have, or you are not able to be there for them because of your mood/business, it is ok to say: “This is a rough day for me. I want to be able to give you the time you need. How about we chat over coffee tomorrow?” In this way, the other person feels valued but also understands that right now is not a good time for you.
- Focus your energy on the speaker. If you are speaking face-to-face, maintain eye contact, have an open body posture (uncross your arms, turn your body toward them), and either lean slightly forward or imagine doing so.
- Put aside your own troubles and thoughts. You will have time to deal with those later.
- Don’t interrupt. Allow the other person to speak to completion. We often interrupt out of a need or desire to connect (“I’ve had that happen too!”) or show we’re listening (“Really? Why would he/she do that?! That’s terrible!”), but we can do the same thing without interrupting by facial expressions, nodding, or simple comments (such as saying wow, yes, right, uh-huh). Instead, imagine sending them energy that corresponds with how you would respond verbally. For example, imagine your heart open and radiating love, care, or empathy to someone who is upset.
- Resist mentally rehearsing what advice you will give or how you’ll respond. You will end up distracted, miss what is said, and may telegraph to the person you’re not with them. If you listen fully, you will be ready to speak when it’s time.
If you put these tips into practice, you will not only strengthen your ability to actively listen, but others will most likely notice the difference and feel positive about your conversations. Whether we are aware of it or not, we can sense when someone is really listening to us, and we respond more favorably to them because of it. By practicing active listening with the people in your life, you might find they are more present with their attention and energy when it’s your turn to speak.