Nick and Lauren were at an impasse. Whenever they discussed topics they disagreed on, the conversation quickly disintegrated into an argument, each talking over the other. Their marriage counselor recommended they both invest some time into improving their listening skills. In particular, she recommended they learn about active listening.
Listening is half of communication: if one person speaks but the other doesn’t listen, no communication takes place. And while simply sitting and listening to someone may look like a passive activity, good listening takes effort. Luckily it’s a skill that can be learned and improved with practice.
Listening, of course, is a useful communication skill for work and social situations as well as our intimate relationships. Regardless of the setting, here are some good techniques to practice:
- Concentrate on what’s being said. That means ignore distractions (especially your phone), avoid daydreaming, and switch off your internal dialogue. Don’t plan what you are going to say next—just listen.
- Pay attention with your body. Body language matters: maintain good eye contact, smile, lean in, and avoid folding your arms. An occasional nod or appropriately placed “um-hum” conveys affirmation, agreement, understanding, and interest.
- Make the conversation safe. Try not to judge what the other person thinks or feels. Avoid shaming, criticizing, blaming, or other negative reflections. This encourages our conversation partner to share their thoughts and feelings honestly and openly.
- Seek to understand. Your job as a listener is to understand the other person, not necessarily agree with them. Especially if they say something about you that you disagree with, now is not the time to jump in and defend yourself. Take in their perspective—there will be an opportunity later for you to share a different one.
- Ask questions. Keep questions open-ended and avoid the kind that produce dead-end answers like “yes” or “no”. Asking about the person’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings shows you are interested and encourages them to explore and share more fully.
- If needed, ask for clarification. It’s okay to ask someone to explain further if you’re struggling to understand something they said. However, avoid focusing on trivial details so much that you miss their main point.
- Be patient. Don’t interrupt, don’t fill silence with your own words, don’t finish their sentences, and don’t top their story with a story of your own. This is their time to talk—yours will come.
- Don’t solve their problems. Often the person talking wants support, not advice. People are much more likely to take a course of action when they’ve come to their own conclusion. Use questions to guide them there, or at least ask if they want your advice before giving it (“may I make a suggestion?”).
- Reflect what you hear. More on that next.
Active listening is a listening technique where we paraphrase and reflect back what the other person said. It’s a positive way of engaging in the conversation while letting our conversation partner know that we understand and empathize. Withholding judgment and advice in that reflection is a key component of this practice.
For example, your partner might complain about how busy they are and how you’re not helping enough. In good active listening form, your job is to summarize what you’ve heard, not defend yourself. You might say, “In other words, what you’re saying is that you’re frustrated about your workload and you’d like me to pick up more of the slack.”
Active listening especially shines in our intimate relationships and during difficult conversations. Consider these built-in benefits:
- It forces us to concentrate on what’s being said, so we can repeat it back.
- As long as we’re just reflecting our partner’s words back, we’re not responding aggressively or defensively.
- If what our loved one said was exaggerated or inflammatory, hearing it repeated back will often cause them to say it more accurately or tone it down.
- It ensures we are talking about the same subject and building shared understanding—eliminating needless confusion and conflict.
- Mirroring what our partner said helps them feel validated and understood.
What active listening sounds like
Here’s an example of active listening:
Lauren: I had a rough day at work, I’m exhausted from staying up late to get the laundry done, and I come home to this mess. You never help around here!
Nick: It sounds like you’re tired and irritated with the messy house, and you think I don’t help at all. Did I understand that right?
Lauren: Mostly, although I should say you do help sometimes. I don’t think you help enough, however.
Nick: Okay, so you want me to help more. What’s one thing you’d most like me to do?
Notice when Nick reflected Lauren’s words back, she had a chance to correct the most provocative part of her statement. Note, too, that Nick didn’t get defensive but instead sought understanding, even though he didn’t necessarily agree with his wife’s view.
Averting conflict through active listening
Here’s another example conversation using active listening:
Nick: I can’t believe you told your sister and her family they are welcome stay here for a month while they are between houses. That’s so like them to mooch off us, but if we asked them for a favor, they’d turn us down. Plus, their kids are so undisciplined—they drive me crazy.
Lauren: So you’re dreading having my sister and her family stay with us and you want me to tell her they’re not welcome here? Is that what you’re saying?
Nick: Yes on the dreading part, but no on telling her that they’re not welcome. They’re kinfolk, after all, and it’s the right thing to do. I guess I would like it if we made a way for each family to have some time apart while they’re stay here.
Lauren: I could see how that would be a good idea. What do you suggest?
Had Lauren not used active listening, this conversation could have gone bad quickly. She might have dreaded telling her sister they were not welcome and pushed back on Nick for putting her in that tough spot. Instead, she was able to realize Nick wasn’t really suggesting they revoke their offer, he was just hoping for some accommodations. Eventually, they got on the same page and worked toward a mutually satisfying solution.
Mastering listening and the active listening technique takes time and practice. However, the relationship benefits we get make it well worth the effort. Practice with a friend, or in non-heated situations, so next time you’re faced with a difficult conversation you’re bringing your listening A-game.
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. – James 1:19
Did you know that God wants us to be good listeners? Why? Because he knows that when we are, it will bless our relationships and us. He issues this command in James’s inspired writing because he cares about us (dear brothers and sisters) and he wants good outcomes in our life.
Here’s another surprising truth: trusting God helps us be good listeners. The number one thing that gets in the way of listening is our need to defend ourselves or push our own agenda. When we trust God to be our protector and provider, we don’t need to fight so hard to control what others say, think, or do. Knowing our needs are already covered frees us to listen.