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What to Know About Active Listening

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 01, 2022

Do you ever feel like your partner isn’t really listening when you’re speaking? Maybe you’re the one who has trouble conveying that you’re truly listening, or maybe you just can't hold your comments until the end of your friend’s explanation. Communication breakdowns like these can spell trouble for your friendships, romances, and work relationships. 

If you’re having trouble connecting with a close friend or romantic partner, it may not surprise you to know that we often have the most trouble communicating with our loved ones. Learn more about active listening benefits and gain a few tips for attending to your conversation partner for healthier, more present relationships.

What Is Active Listening?

If you're engaging in active listening, this means that you are putting down your phone, book, tablet, or whatever else may distract you from the other person’s words. But it’s not as simple as merely hearing what your conversation partner is saying. You’re listening with the intention of understanding your partner on an emotional level as well as a literal, verbal one. Active listening involves the following actions:

  • Putting away or turning off devices and other distractions.
  • Attending to the other person without judgment or criticism.
  • Using nonverbal communication like maintaining eye contact, nodding, and facing the person you’re speaking to convey respect.
  • Waiting until the other person finishes speaking before you voice your thoughts.

What Are Some Active Listening Examples?

Once you learn more about active listening, it will become easier to spot in conversations. You may notice when a friend is (or isn’t) actively listening to you, and vice versa. Try one of the following active listening exercises next time you’re feeling stuck in a conversation:

  • Repeat what your conversation partner said and ask for clarification if you need it. You could say, “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that you think you need more time off work.”
  • If you’re offended by or angry because of a comment, ask your conversation partner what their intention was before engaging in an argument. You might start the conversation by saying, “It hurt my feelings when you said that. Can you tell me what you meant?”
  • Paraphrase the emotional content of your conversation partner’s words. You might say something like, “So, it seems like you’re frustrated because your boyfriend canceled your date.”

It may also be helpful to note what active listening isn’t. You shouldn’t try to steer the conversation toward your interests, give suggestions when your conversation partner is still finishing a sentence, or pass judgment. While it may be helpful to offer advice, if you’re actively listening, try to gauge whether your conversation partner will be receptive to this advice at the moment or if you should wait until a less emotionally charged time. Similarly, if your conversation partner is upset with someone else, try to listen without taking either person’s side.

Why Is Active Listening in Relationships Important?

Active listening goes a long way toward making relationships better, healthier, and more empathetic. Even if you aren’t great at reading between the lines or picking up on the emotional intent of someone else’s words, it probably means a lot to the other person that you are trying to empathize. Active listening, at its most basic level, simply involves paying close attention to another person’s words as well as the feeling and intent behind them.

It's obvious how listening closely and reflecting on another person’s feelings can aid personal relationships — but this type of listening can go a long way toward helping you succeed in business transactions as well. Giving colleagues feedback, understanding how to engage when a boss is speaking, and clarifying a coworker’s confusing statement could be immensely helpful on the job.

Why Might Someone Be a Poor Listener?

You probably know many people who don’t pay attention, cut you off halfway through your sentences, or turn every conversation into an argument regardless of what you’re talking about. At the same time, some of your friends and loved ones may feel that you don’t listen as well as you think you do. 

What causes poor listening skills? Often, multitasking while listening or rushing to get through a conversation isn’t intentional. The good news is that with practice, anyone can develop better social skills, including active listening. A person may have trouble with active listening for the following reasons:

Habit. Most people don’t communicate as well as they think they do, and people often use confusing or misleading phrasing when they think they're being clear. It’s easy to assume that because you know someone, you understand everything about their perspective. Conscious and active listening may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort to feel understood — and to make others feel heard. 

Stress. You probably already know that chronic stress and anxiety can lead to many mental and physical health problems. If you’re tense all the time, your nervous system is always on the lookout for a threat even if there isn’t one. 

Unfortunately, this hypervigilance can cause problems when you’re supposed to be listening. Research has found that high stress levels can cause poor attention and memory — which may be why you can’t remember that important thing your partner told you last night, or why you’re having trouble paying attention in class. 

If your stress is unmanageable and is getting in the way of your relationships or your ability to actively listen in conversations, it may be time to talk to your doctor or mental health professional and make a plan to decrease your level of tension.

Communication difficulties. Though it’s common for everyone to interrupt, be distracted, and misunderstand others, there are a few situations in which these habits are the norm and not the exception, like when one or both parties have ADHD. People with ADHD often get bored during conversations, they may walk out of a room and forget that a loved one is speaking, or they may blurt out their thoughts without thinking. 

Fortunately, there are ways to retrain yourself to bring the positive traits of ADHD to light while minimizing the traits that may get in the way of your relationships.

Lack of practice. Active listening isn't intuitive for many people, but these skills can be learned. There are many levels of social communication. To actively listen to another person, you must be able to do the following:

  • Use verbal, signed, or written communication to convey meaning and nonverbal language to let your conversation partner know you’re listening.
  • Practice good social skills like using culturally relevant manners and waiting until your turn to speak.
  • Choose your words carefully when responding to someone.

It’s possible for anyone to learn more effective communication skills. If you’re struggling to pay attention and say the right things in conversation, try these active listening strategies to enhance your conversations with acquaintances and loved ones alike.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The ADD Resource Center: “The Effects of ADHD on Communication.”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: "Social Communication."

Boston University: “Active Listening.”

CSU Global: “What is Active Listening? 4 Tips for Improving Communication Skills.”

GoodTherapy: “Practicing Active Listening Can Improve Your Relationship.”

MentalHelp.net: “Communication Challenges with Family and Friends.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet.”

Neuroscience Bulletin: “Impact of Chronic Stress on Attention Control: Evidence from Behavioral and Event-Related Potential Analyses.”

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