By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Have you ever heard the saying “you’re listening, but you’re not hearing me?” This is something I see commonly when I provide family therapy and couple’s therapy. Naturally, this feeling of not being heard is a huge barrier to communication in relationships.
Today’s post is all about active listening and how to master the art of this communication skill.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is the art of using verbal and non-verbal cues to understand the information someone is communicating to you. Essentially, you are listening with all your senses in order to convey to the person you are communicating with, that they have your full attention.
It sounds simple, in theory, but active listening is a skill you have to develop. Think about it for a moment. There is a lot going on in the world around you:
- your insula is picking up on background information, like music or the smell from the burger shop
- your prefrontal cortex is trying to problem-solve that big to-do list
- your darn amygdala is getting ready to keep you anxious and on alert
That is a lot and I bet that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg for you! When we learn how to actively listen, we are training our brain to channel its attention and prioritize the task of listening.
Why does active listening matter?
Active listening is a huge part of interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills are a group of activities we use not just to connect with other people but create bonds of trust and respect with the people that matter most to us.
When we actively listen to someone, there are some pretty cool things happening to our brain:
- The brain releases the neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter responsible for helping us feel connected to the people around us and feel loved.
- The brain also releases the neurotransmitter, GABA, which helps our body relax as our prefrontal cortex can pinpoint exactly what you need to do based on the information your senses are bringing in.
- Your brain rewards you with the neurotransmitters of serotonin and dopamine, helping you feel good and accomplished.
In turn, when you actively listen to someone, you are triggering the release of the same feel-good neurotransmitters to them. We can change someone else’s brain! How neat is that?
Different types of listening
Did you know you could break down active listening into four different groups of listening? True story! The 4 types of listening are:
- Appreciative Listening: this listening is all about enjoyment. Like listening to your favorite album, audio book, or even a good TED talk. You are listening out of appreciation and wanting to catch every bit of what you are hearing.
- Empathetic Listening: when we use empathetic listening, we are trying to really understand what a person is saying to us. We are looking to comprehend the speaker’s emotions and really making the speaker the center of your attention. If you have kids, this is the type of listening we do when our kids tell us about a bad day.
- Comprehensive listening: we engage in this style of listening if we are listening to the news, weather reports, or even in class. We are trying to learn about something and evaluate the evidence surrounding what we are learning. This helps us understand how to store the information in our brain and categorize it.
- Critical Listening: critical thinking and critical listening go hand-in-hand. This style of listening highlights our prefrontal cortex and helps us solve an issue. A great example of this is if you are listening to people’s feedback on whether to have an Apple or Android phone.
When do you know someone is actively listening?
Great question! There are a few ways to tell if someone is actively listening to you
- They can remember what you said and repeat it back to you
- They ask for clarification on the information you are providing them
- They reflect on what you are saying to them
- They can summarize your conversation before it ends
- They can identify your needs from the conversation
- They are giving you a comfortable amount of eye contact
- They are showing facial expressions that match with what you are saying (e.g. – smiling at happy news, showing surprise at shocking news). This is also called mirroring in the professional world of therapy.
- They are physically leaning into your conversation
- They can avoid distractions in the environment and focus on the conversation
Improving your active listening skills
Everyone has room to improve their active listening skills, even therapists like me. Why is that? Because we are all human and get distracted. Improving your active listening skills doesn’t require much more time or energy than you are using right now to read this post.
1. Limit how many times you interrupt the speaker
This is a tough one. It is only natural to want to interject and ask questions to help us better understand. The issue when we interrupt people is that they lose their train of thought, and sometimes, an important part of information they are trying to tell you. By practicing waiting to ask questions until the speaker pauses, you show the speaker that you are attentive (and you strengthen your prefrontal cortex as well!)
2. Keep an open mind
It is so easy for us to answer someone back with “if I were you” or “from my perspective, you should.” These might seem and feel helpful, but they aren’t. When you think about it, you are taking the message the speaker is giving you and inserting judgement on what the speaker is trying to convey. Sometimes, that is a good thing (like answering a survey or a multiple-choice answer question). Other times, it can come across as you aren’t actually hearing what someone is saying. Be sure to keep an open mind and listen for clues about why the speaker is giving you think information.
3. Focus on what is being said, not on what you want to say
If I had a dollar for every time someone tries to prepare for a conversation and they planned for everything, but that one thing, I could afford an expensive coffee every day for the rest of my life. It is the way of that darn amygdala to want to be prepared for any situation. In the midst of trying to be prepared, we often lose sight of what the speaker is saying. It is okay to take time to reflect on information after it is said to formulate what you want to say. If anything, that demonstrates that you are, indeed, actively listening, to the speaker.
4. Repeat back key points you heard
Repeating back key points you heard is the definition of summarizing. This helps you not only receive validation that you did hear what the speaker was trying to say but give the speaker a chance to clarify what they were trying to say if your key points don’t match what they were trying to convey. This is such an important skill as it gives you a chance to strengthen your relationship with the speaker, but also help the speaker identify if what they were saying matches what they wanted to say.
I want to thank you all for taking time to learn about how active listening skills can help you, and your relationships. It is a great skill to master, and your darn amygdala will thank you for it!