For many people, a common weeknight occurrence is to get home from work and ask a family member, partner or roommate about their day.
While many of us pose the question with genuine interest, it’s all too easy for our minds to wander, until suddenly we’re planning what to make for dinner or which show to watch later — and we’ve missed everything our loved one has said.
Listening to understand someone builds trust, connection and empathy; it can allow you to see from new perspectives and create positive relationships with your friends, family, co-workers and community members.
It also takes practice.
While the name sounds somewhat straightforward, active listening involves more than just listening intently to another person.
“Active listening is a skill we use to have an engaged conversation that makes the other person feel heard in a positive way, even when we disagree. It often involves reflecting back what someone said, without judgment or criticism,” says Kari Stephens, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
You have the opportunity to practice active listening in every conversation you enter — here’s how.
DON’T: Pre-plan your response
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought about your response while someone else was talking. (Yep, same here.)
Oftentimes we’re so preoccupied thinking about what we’ll say next that we miss what the other person is telling us. This is especially true when it comes to any preconceived biases or judgments we have.
If you think the other person won’t have anything important to say, that you already know everything on the topic or that you are right (and the other person is wrong), it becomes impossible to genuinely listen.
DO: Listen to understand
Instead of going into a conversation thinking you have all the answers, try to adopt a mindset of curiosity. This way you will focus on what the other person is saying without getting distracted by your own perceptions or assumptions.
“Active listening can be a way we invite our own judgements or frustrations to step outside for a moment so we can hear the other person’s perspective,” Stephens says.
DON’T: Try to multitask
With phones, smartwatches and daily life surrounding us, there are plenty of distractions that can pull our attention away from a conversation.
While you may think you can check that notification without checking out of a discussion, you are less likely to hear what a person is saying if you’re also trying to respond to emails on your phone.
Even if you do catch what the person is saying, you’re missing body language and other cues that are essential for true understanding.
DO: Pay attention to nonverbal cues
Nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language and gestures help give us a fuller picture of how another person is feeling.
For example, if your friend tells you they had a great day while turning away and avoiding eye contact, it likely means something different than if they say so while grinning from ear to ear.
It’s also important to be aware of your own nonverbal cues. Facing the other person and maintaining eye contact helps show that you care about what they are saying and want to listen.
DON’T: Steer the conversation
When we get excited about a topic we can jump in and dominate conversation, even if the other person wasn’t ready to move on from what they were discussing.
“Pitfalls to active listening often include adding in our own opinion, reaction or judgment to the conversation,” Stephens says. “Sometimes we try to steer the conversation, rather than letting the speaker say the next thing they feel they need to say.”
If you do notice you’ve derailed the conversation, Stephens notes a simple solution is to mention this and then hand the mic back to your friend. You can say something like, “I think I got off track, can you go back to what you were saying. I didn’t mean to take us in a different direction.”
DO: Reflect back what the person said
One of the defining features of active listening is reflecting or paraphrasing back what the other person said. This helps the other person feel understood and allows them to clarify what they meant if you didn’t quite get it.
While you want to reflect, try to avoid parroting exactly what the other person said. Paraphrase the content and emotions they expressed in your own words. And if you’re unclear what they meant, ask questions so you have a better grasp on their perspective.
“People can tell if we’re disengaged or just repeating their words. It’s helpful to try to paraphrase into your own words, which makes the other person see what you think they mean,” Stephens says.
If the person is sharing a lot of information at once, it can help to pause and check your comprehension.
Stephens recommends saying, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I want to make sure I’m hearing everything you’ve said. I’d like to see if I’m getting it before you keep going.”
At first, active listening can feel a bit uncomfortable. If you aren’t used putting your phone away during discussions or reflecting back what another person has expressed, you may feel awkward at first. However, with time and practice, active listening will get easier.
You can also ask a friend or co-worker to help you practice. Have them speak on a random topic — say, their favorite food or a fond memory — then try to notice nonverbal cues, withhold any judgements or responses, reflect back their emotions and what they are saying, and ask clarifying questions.
Given time, you’ll not only become a better listener, but a more engaged partner, friend and colleague.
Want more how-tos? Read our article on how to find a mentor — and why you should.