In today’s culture, many times we live glued to a screen. We wake up and reach for our smart phones, immediately checking email and social media. Many people spend their days at the computer, and come home to watch TV. While we’re learning to connect with people virtually, are we still connecting well when we’re face to face? Practicing your listening skills will pay off relationally, whether at home, in the workplace, or with friends.
Turn off the screens. To create an atmosphere conducive to meaningful conversation, reduce your distractions as much as possible. This means shutting down the computer, putting your phone on silent, and turning off the TV. You’ll be able to focus on the conversation without being distracted by every tweet, status update, text, and news flash.
Make eye contact. Looking the speaker in the eye helps them to feel heard and respected as they communicate their message to you. Great active listeners don’t stare down the speaker (too intimidating), yet make enough eye contact to show the speaker they are paying attention and prioritizing the conversation over other distractions.
Give verbal feedback. One part of active listening is showing the speaker you are following along what they’re communicating. Words like “yes,” “I understand,” and “mm-hmm” are all unobtrusive cues to the speaker that you are listening and processing the message. Also, you can paraphrase the message you’re hearing to make sure you’re accurately interpreting what has been said. Saying something like, “This is what I’m hearing you say,” can give the speaker a chance to hear whether they’ve been clear in their communication, and will also let you know if you’re tracking with their message.
Use body language. Your body communicates a world of information, even when you’re not speaking. Crossed arms, tense muscles, clenching your jaw, tapping your fingers, or fiddling with a pen or another object can communicate that you are disinterested in the message, and at worst, can send a message of disrespect to the speaker. Facing the speaker, relaxing your shoulders and torso, and nodding in agreement from time to time are all ways you can use your body to communicate active listening.
Practice your active listening skills and remember to ask for feedback from the speaker. Most of the time, your partner or friend will be able to tell you if they feel heard when they talk to you. The more you work on your listening skills, the better listener you’ll become. Every conversation is an opportunity for growth in this area.