Active listening, or showing others that you understand them, is the most important step in the dance of communication. Generally, during an emotional moment, two people are desperately trying to get their points across to each other and neither is actually listening. Or one person is going on and the other is tuning him or her out. The way out of this dilemma is the listening paradox: When you most want someone to hear you, it helps to listen first!
Active Listening Tools
True listening occurs when you clear your mind of your own thoughts and put your attention entirely on another person. The following steps help build the concentration necessary for active listening:
- Make eye contact, nods of understanding, and listening noises: “Uh huh. . . . hmm. . . .” When you appear disinterested, people talk on and on, desperately trying to gain your attention. Focusing on the speaker shortens monologues by helping the speaker realize you are listening.
- Rephrase: “Are you saying . . . ?” It is better to restate in other words what has been said than to simply repeat. This helps clarify the other person’s point. Ask questions if you don’t fully understand what has been said: “What do you mean by . . . ?” Your paraphrases don’t have to be 100% correct as long as you ask, “What percent of that did I understand?” Keep rephrasing until the other person feels completely understood. This is often signified by a nod.
- Label feelings: “Do you feel . . . ? You seem to feel. . . .” Until emotions are recognized, people tend to hang on to them. Once feelings are identified, people can let them go. Highly accurate responses can draw out tears. Releasing such emotions deepens the connection between two people and takes communication to an intimate level (especially when accompanied by a touch, pat, or hug). When people are mad, identify any hurt their anger may be masking. It is generally better to overstate distress than to minimize it.
- Validate feelings: “It makes sense that you feel . . . because. . . .” Validating the factors that contribute to a feeling requires curiosity. The more irrational an emotion seems, the more fascinating it is to discover the cause. When you understand the “emotional logic” behind a feeling, it starts to make sense: “I can see why you are disappointed in me, since you don’t approve of women wearing short skirts.” Feelings are not right or wrong, but are the result of helpful or harmful beliefs. Validating shows that you are not making judgments and helps others be less defensive or attacking.
Tomorrow: Active Listening Examples