A few weeks ago I attended the second edition of The Mindful Living Show in London, and I had a truly fantastic time. It was a great opportunity to have the day to myself, but it was also a chance for reflection. And (you’ll never guess) a way to take some time out for mindfulness meditation, even in a busy, buzzing environment. The day started with an amazing keynote by Will Young, who really made me question how we communicate with others. Are we really able to listen? How often do you find yourself in a conversation with a close friend jumping in, offering advice, trying to ‘fix’ their situation, rather than just sit and listen, without interrupting? Or how often do people do that to us? Does it make us feel heard and understood? How do our children feel when we offer them solutions all the time? And what is that doing to their confidence and development? So I did some research to see if I could find some practical tips and techniques for active listening that we could all start to use more in our daily interactions.
Monotask (in other words, give them your attention!)
Let’s start with the basics, shall we? We should all be doing this really, but in a world that seems to get busier by the minute, we are all too tempted to fall into the trap of multitasking. So let’s try to intentionally avoid that, and when engaged in a conversation with someone, let’s try giving them our full, undivided focus and attention. Multitasking doesn’t really work anyway, as our minds can only actively focus on one thing at the time.
So the next time we’re listening to our colleague at lunchtime, we can, of course (if you wanted to) eat our sandwich at the same time. But we can either eat that sandwich really mindfully, focus on its taste, or think about how nice it feels to finally have an [insert your favourite taste] sandwich after such a long time. Or we can really listen to what our colleague is telling us, without allowing ourselves to get distracted. That’s what real listening is!
Always pay attention to non-verbal communication
In any exchange, a lot is communicated through body language. So we should try to notice the non-verbal signals the other person is communicating. But we should pay close attention to how we handle ourselves in a conversation with someone? Here are a few things to watch out for.
- Maintain eye-contact with the person who’s speaking, if appropriate. I say this because if you’re talking side-by-side with someone, or if looking at the other person in the eyes is making them (or you) feel uncomfortable, maybe you should reconsider this. As a side note, apparently, men find it easier to talk to each other about important stuff when they’re not face-to-face. So while walking or running, exercising at the gym, driving, etc. You can read more about this in the book Run for your Life, which I reviewed here.
- Show them interest through your body posture – think open, visible palms (not fists), open arms (not crossed), leaning forward, nodding etc. In fact, you can go as far as mirroring (more on that below) the other person’s posture, their position or their gestures. We often do this subconsciously in a conversation, but if you’re doing it intentionally, be careful! You don’t want this to look like mimicking – that isn’t showing an interest. And you don’t want to be mocking the person who’s talking!
- When you’re asking them a question or saying something, be mindful of your tone of voice. Do you sound aggressive? Sarcastic? Judgemental? You may be using all the right words, but the way you say things is obviously also very important.
Paying attention to non-verbal communication is an important technique for active listening because it allows us to go behind the words. It allows us to connect with the underlying needs, feelings, and emotions that are being communicated. If you’re paying full attention to what someone is saying, and you’re being mindful of your body language and non-verbal communication, showing empathy should feel quite natural to you. So don’t just stop at noticing the words the other person is using. Show warmth towards them – let them know you care about what they’re saying.
When we’re engaged in a conversation (and really engaged, as opposed to half listening while scrolling through our social media feeds) we tend to mirror the people we talk to. We’re able to recognise, acknowledge, and reciprocate their feelings and emotions. This is called mirroring, and it’s programmed into our brains. It allows us to empathise with others.
It’s really important because when the person we’re talking to interrupts us to tell us a story about themselves, instead of feeling heard and listened to, we can perceive indifference, disinterest or even hostility. Something physically happens in our brains when this happens. According to Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, this mechanism is called ‘mirror neuron receptor deficit’, and it’s responsible for making us feel alone and disconnected.
So next time we’re in a conversation, let’s try not to interrupt! Sometimes it’s inevitable, but we can certainly make a mental note of trying this out next time someone’s telling us something important to them, right?
Ask open questions
What’s the best way to show someone that we’re interested in what they’re saying, that we’re listening, and we want to know and understand more? Of course, asking questions! So wait for a natural pause in the conversation and ask the other person open, clarifying questions. These are brilliant at promoting longer and more meaningful responses (if you’ve tried the ‘How was school?’ tactic, you’ll know what I’m talking about here). But also, questions help you to clarify and confirm your understanding of what the other person is saying. By repeating back the major points and requesting more information, in a supportive way, you can clear out any confusion. Asking questions is also a way to avoid paraphrasing or summarising too much. We need to be careful with this, as we don’t want to put words into someone else’s mouth (and then end up in an argument!)
Will Young in his talk at The Mindful Living Show shared a simple formula for this that he uses in his everyday conversations. “When I heard you say X, what came up for me was Y. What I felt about that was Z.” I’m sure you can see that this is very different from saying “you said you didn’t want rice for dinner and it means clearly you hate my cooking, and I’m leaving you.” Or something along those lines. What I’m trying to say here is that if we don’t actively listen to the people around us, we can very very easily get the wrong end of the stick and jump to conclusions.
In my last job, I had extensive training on active listening. One technique I was introduced to was ‘listen listen’. This was essentially a way to help managers in the company listen to their employees without jumping to (the wrong) conclusions and offering fixes and solutions that didn’t really help the person who was talking. For a whole day, we were encouraged to role-play this with our colleagues. We had to start by sharing a problem we had. After we finished talking, the other person would ask: “Is there anything else you’d like to say about this?”. So you’d carry on talking. By the end, the other person would continue to look at you, and not butt in. You’d feel you’d have to say something else. So you’d carry on.
The exercise went on for a while. It felt rather uncomfortable for all of us. But at some point, the person talking would arrive at the root of the problem. And find their own solution. The other person hadn’t really contributed at all! It was amazing to see how this really worked. If and when the time to summarise and paraphrase comes, you could also try phrases like “it sounds like”, “I feel as though”, “it seems as if”, or “What I heard you saying is”.
Refrain from giving your opinion
As seen above in our ‘listen listen’ example, sometimes people just need to be heard. And they may not be asking for your opinion or for you to be some sort of superhero and come and rescue them. So try to refrain from giving your opinion straight away. You should only resort to this after a lot of questioning! Next time someone is sharing a struggle, try to be quiet while they’re talking. Give them the time and the space to think and talk.
We all know what it’s like when we’re unsure about our feelings or haven’t been able to articulate our thoughts yet. Things don’t quite come out the way we meant them. So don’t assume silence is always an opportunity for you to jump in. Let the other person re-organise their thoughts if looks like they may need or want to. They may not have finished talking after all, and we often ‘ruin it’ by jumping in with the solution. We mean well, and I’m sure you also do it with your children all the time. But what would happen if instead of trying to fix all their problems, we trusted them to be able to come up with their own solutions? Imagine how well their problem-solving skills could develop? Given the time and space, they may just not need our opinion or advice at all! Shall we all try that with our children next time they come to us with a problem they may be having?
If you want to find out more about the topic of active listening, here are some books you may enjoy.
How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber.
The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols.
Power Listening, by Bernard T. Ferrari.
Or why not watch this fantastic TEDx talk by Willian Ury to learn about the power of listening. You’ll learn why we should really try to listen more and why we find it so hard to do.
Over to you now, can you share any tips for active listening?
*Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.