What Is Active Listening and How Do I Do It?

We’ve all been in a conversation where it is clear that the other person is not present. While everyone has heard the expression, “Hearing and listening are two different things,” we often aren’t given the advice or reminders as to how to achieve the latter of the two. Here are some things to keep in mind and strategies to employ to be an excellent active listener.

 

Eye Contact

While it sounds very simple, eye contact is a great way to really show the person you are speaking with that you are immersed in their story. For many people, eye contact is very intimate. There is something about looking directly into someone else’s eyes that brings about a new level of closeness and connection. Now, we’re not saying you stare them down (def don’t forget to blink), but making a conscious effort to really look into your friend's eyes while they speaking will allow them to see that you really care about what they are saying.  

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Body Language

You can tell a lot about a person simply through their body language. Something as basic as crossed arms gives off the signal that you are guarding yourself and don’t want to talk. If you’re having an important chat with a friend, make sure you look like you want to be having that conversation. While you don’t have to literally be on the edge of your seat, sitting up straight(ish) without fidgeting with something else communicates that you are really interested in what they are saying and want them to continue. Body language also encompasses facial expressions. It is so disappointing to see a blank expression on your friend's face while you are telling a WILD story. By clearly emoting while your friend speaks, they will see that you are actively listening to what they are saying and are connecting with the emotions they felt during the real events in the story.

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Asking Questions

Just like in class, asking questions while in a conversation or hearing a story shows that you are being thoughtful and engaged in what is happening. Asking the storyteller to give a few more details about the background of a person in the story or to recap where they know them from will show that you care deeply about what they are saying - but the questions don’t have to stick to content. Make sure to ask the person how they felt in a particularly interesting or controversial moment and what was racing through their mind. Questions like this reaffirm your care about your friend as a person and what they have to say.  

 

Repeating or Summarizing

This is a strategy that may sound strange at first, but proves to be very effective when put into practice.  Think of it like a check-in point or pit stop for understanding. For example, let’s say your friend is telling you a story about how they are upset with their boyfriend for suddenly canceling plans that they worked really hard to put together. You can respond saying something like, “Wow that is so frustrating for it to not happen so last minute, especially since I know you worked really hard to make that date come together.” By mentioning all the details in the story in your own words, your friend will truly feel heard. This is especially helpful when a person is talking about something emotional. It is easier to give the most useful support and properly empathize with your friend when you know specifically what they are feeling - and, if you misunderstood a detail or the more underlying issue of the conversation, your friend can easily help clarify since you have given them a summary.

 

Lose the Phone

In this digital age, it is hard to be able to truly disconnect and have uninterrupted conversation. Your phone is the killer of active listening. There is nothing more frustrating when you are trying to have a big group conversation or one-on-one chat and the person you want most to hear your story is deep in the depths of Twitter. Not only is it rude to your friends, but it can leave you susceptible to the awkward blurt out of something completely unrelated to what is happening that derails the current conversation and shows that you, in fact, were not listening.  While we know that everyone checks their phone sometimes and uses it to remind them of stories they want to share, make sure that you put it away while others are telling something important. Just the act of turning it face down so you don’t watch your notifications come up gives the signal to your friend that you want to be present in this moment and will attend to the internet later.

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As the semester winds down, we are all preparing to go home and reunite with those back-home besties. You’ll both definitely have lots of catching up to do, and several weeks worth of crazy and emotional stories to recount. Hopefully, these tips will allow you to approach those conversations as an active listener and amazing friend.