how to become an active listener blog kim waltman fullcircle creative + coaching

Back in January, I encouraged you to ‘be’ an active listener. Active listening is an action involving all the senses. It means fully concentrating on what is being said. It’s different than hearing (which is passive) and is a learned skill that takes time and patience to develop. Given that it’s a learned skill, I figured it’s a great time to do some learning!

Our learning journey starts with some reflecting. How many times have you said something to another individual or group of people only to discover that 1) what you said was completely disregarded 2) what you said was only partially heard 3) what you said was only partially accurate? Unfortunately, these experiences are more common than they should be. Take the following examples.

Over the holidays, I returned to the house after getting some fresh air. Content to simply shed my cold weather gear and quietly make myself some breakfast, I was greeted by a family member with the question, “How did it go?”

I paused momentarily before responding, giving thought to how much detail to share. Part way through my answer, my conversation partner glanced down at his iPad and sunk his teeth into his cream cheese covered bagel, completely disengaged from what I was saying. In that moment, it felt as if nothing I said was heard and, most importantly, he didn’t appear to care. Again, I paused and waited until he noticed the silence. By the time his glance met mine, I was too frustrated and disheartened to finish answering the question. His body language told me I didn’t have his full attention. And, frankly, I didn’t have the energy to try and get it. I chose not to continue talking and ended the conversation by exiting the space.

Or, how about this?

How many times have you been in a meeting with several people only to look around and see empty eyes, motionless faces and disengaged bodies positioned in chairs staring at the person speaking? If this describes what you typically see, it’s very likely people are physically there but mentally elsewhere. If you were to ask any one of those individuals what they’re thinking about, chances are you’d hear a range of responses from how much I have to do today to what I’m packing for my trip to what’s for dinner.

At one time or another, each one of us has felt we weren’t heard. It’s a painful feeling, especially if it occurs with those we’re closest to. But, we have the power to alter that trajectory. By developing our own listening skills, we’re able to model those skills to others. In turn, they will become better listeners and we will feel heard, understood and respected.

The importance of listening

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

You’ve probably  heard this quote by Greek speaking Stoic philosopher Epictetus before. But how many of us think about what it means? Are we mindful of it day-to-day when engaging in conversation with friends, family and co-workers? How many of us are disciplined enough to turn off mental noise (inner conversations or monologues constantly occurring in our minds) or ignore environmental distractions such as cell phones, computers or TV? In the story mentioned earlier, distractions weren’t ignored and the interaction between myself and the other individual ended. I believe it’s unacceptable to allow distractions to get in the way of listening.

As with other emotional needs, the need to be heard is one of survival. As humans, we’re all interdependent - many of our basic needs depend on the cooperation of others. It’s important for us to know and communicate our needs. If we’re not heard, those needs can’t be communicated. It’s any wonder we feel frustrated and hurt when we don’t feel heard.

Distractions and habits

Allowing distractions, whether within ourselves or externally, has become a habit. According to Merriam-Webster, a habit is a usual way of behaving : something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way. This way of ‘being’ is considered as a natural and inseparable part of life. I challenge you to consider: Can something habitual be changed?

Hopefully, you answered, “Yes!”

While breaking old habits and forming new ones may cause discomfort, the discomfort is, for the most part, short lived. It occurs because behavioral patterns are imprinted on our brain’s neural pathways. But it’s possible to form new habits through repetition. Once something becomes a habit, it turns into a routine. It becomes our way of ‘being’ without requiring a lot of mental activity.

So, how do we break the old habit of allowing internal and external distractions to prevent us from effective listening and transition to active listening? Here are 7 tips discovered from my own journey.

7 tips to active listening

1. Turn off mental noise

Mental noise is like a background noise that never ceases, from the moment you awake in the morning, to the moment you fall asleep at night. It’s a sort of inner voice that constantly analyzes everything about your life, circumstances and the people you meet. The mind repeats the same thoughts over and over - like a scratched record. Too often such thoughts are negative and intensify stress, worry, anger or frustration. They occupy the mind with trivial matters and unimportant, useless thinking that wastes your time and energy.

Turning off mental noise allows you to focus 100 percent of your attention on what’s being said and brings on a state of inner peace. At first, turning it off may seem impossible. With some patience and discipline, it will eventually feel like flicking a light switch. If the concept overwhelms you, take this small step: Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Once that’s comfortable, consider journaling so thoughts transition out of your mind and onto paper. The next step could be a simple, few-minute meditation or some fresh air. Taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose. Exhale the same way. Visualize the mental noise leaving your mind with each exhaled breath.

2. ‘Be’ in the moment

Have you ever experienced a brief period of inner peace, without mental noise? Chances are it happened involuntarily, when you attention was completely absorbed in an interesting activity (such as watching a beautiful and inspiring landscape). That’s what is feels like to ‘be’ in the moment and experience present-moment awareness. It’s only in ‘being’ our minds and hearts open.

3. Practice observation

A lot can be learned through observation. By making a conscious effort to observe those you’re communicating with, non-verbal cues will become more noticeable. Take facial expressions for example. Faces convey countless emotions - happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust - which are universal across many cultures. Body movements, and posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, space and voice are all ways we communicate nonverbally and project our presence. By picking up on such nuances, you will be better equipped to decipher what’s being said between the lines.

4. Be curious

Curiosity is all about noticing and being drawn to things we find interesting. When we are curious, we see things differently and use our power of observation more fully. We sense what is happening in the present moment. In addition to aiding one to become a more effective listener, it offers numerous other benefits.

5. Make eye contact

Our eyes reflect sincerity, integrity and comfort when communicating with others. When the person you’re talking with makes eye contact, you’re more likely to trust them and find them sincere. Have you ever been visiting with someone whose eyes look past yours or dart elsewhere as if to keep tabs on everyone and everything else but you? More than likely you don’t feel heard or that you’re interesting enough to sustain their attention. Who wants to feel that way? Eye contact is one of the easiest ways to improve connectivity.

6. Offer acknowledgement

Sprinkling some sound effects such as, “Mmmm hmmm”, “Ah-huh,” “Oh!” and “I see” let others know you’re engaged in what they’re saying. Think about a conversation you had when those you were talking with just stared blankly at you. . . did you feel heard?

7. Be conscious of body language

Non-verbal communication greatly impacts messages people convey. Such actions complement or detract from the synergy of the interaction. For example, if someone you’re talking with has his or her arms crossed in front, that’s an indication he or she is closed off. By contrast, a simple nod or head tilt communicate interest and curiosity.

Think about the possibilities you have to grow your active listening skills! By trying one or more of these tips, you have the power to let others know they’re heard. Being heard is important for both ourselves and others. It’s a part of healthy communication.