What does it mean to truly listen?
Listening well is an art. It’s the basis of effective communication and affects all of our interactions – whether intimate or platonic, personal or professional. Balancing thoughtful speaking with attentive listening is key to creating healthy relationships and building meaningful connections.
Yet for many of us, listening is one of the most difficult things to master. From a young age, we’re usually taught how to speak and express ourselves. But we’re rarely taught how to listen. Listening is often taken as a given – an innate ability that needs no explanation. In fact, listening well involves many nuanced skills and takes practice.
So how can we learn to listen well? Below are some of the best ways we can improve our ability to truly listen.
Give your full attention
The foundation of listening is to be fully present in the interaction. Listening well isn’t simply a matter of hearing what is being said. Instead, it’s about paying mindful attention in order to truly understand the speaker. Mindful listening is an active process – and a delicate balance of reciprocity. It’s all about receiving and absorbing information, while at the same time contributing attentiveness and care. When you are in conversation with someone, give your full attention and commit to being in dialogue with them. If you don’t have the mental space or capacity for the conversation, ask if you can reconnect at another moment when you’re able to be fully present.
Being compassionate while we listen is vital for a healthy dynamic. Being compassionate helps to create a safe space for people to express themselves and allows for greater openness. This is especially important when we’re dealing with challenging conversations and conflict. Try to see the other person in their fullness and to discern the feelings and motivations behind their words. Practice kindness – remember that people communicate through the prism of all their past experiences and that this may not be easy for them. Essentially, we’re all seeking peace, happiness and the sense of being understood.
Our own judgements and opinions can often get in the way of really hearing what someone else is saying. While listening, aim to create a non-judgemental space that allows for differences of opinion. Even if you disagree with someone else’s view, recognise that their perspective is valid and true for them, and meet it with respect. Rather than focusing on being right, listen with curiosity for what may be right about what the other person is saying. Listen with the aim of truly understanding, instead of listening for flaws and then jumping in with a rebuttal once it’s your turn to speak. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge things we disagree with – simply that we listen fully to the other person and examine our own perspective in an enquiring way before doing so.
Listen to what isn’t said
Alongside listening to what people say, pay attention to non-verbal cues. Body language expresses far more than words alone and is usually a more reliable indicator of how people truly feel. Pay attention to body movements and posture, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and tone of voice. All give valuable clues about people’s emotions and what’s really behind their words. Remember to be mindful of your own body language too. Signs of active listening include using eye contact in a mindful way to show engagement, appropriate facial expressions and maintaining good posture. All can help to build trust and connection when you’re listening to someone.
Practice reflective listening
Reflective listening is a technique that can support healthy communication. Reflective listening involves listening to what the other person is saying, and then using your own words to paraphrase and reflect what they said, ideally in an empathetic way. This allows both speaker and listener to check if the speaker’s message has been fully understood. Reflective listening is useful for both the speaker and listener, helping to avoid miscommunication. It also allows the speaker to feel heard – and hearing their words reflected can help them to clarify their thoughts and feelings. Reflective listening is a great tool in conflict management, problem solving, negotiation and listening when someone is in difficulty. Like many listening techniques, it’s also a powerful way to foster connection and forge positive relationships.Back to News