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Using Active Listening to Enhance Your Relationships
By Caitlyn Rogers, Intern & Lisa Schainker, Extension Assistant Professor
Have you ever stopped to think about whether you are simply hearing vs. actually listening to what others are saying? Although they are often used interchangeably, hearing is the process of perceiving sound, while listening requires us to pay attention and give consideration to what we hear. When we engage in active listening, we make a conscious effort to thoroughly understand what someone is trying to tell us through their words and non-verbal messages. Essentially, it means being fully engaged in the interaction, and just like any other skill, it requires patience and practice. Using active listening can help us avoid frustration and confusion in our relationships with others, and has a number of other potential benefits.
Typically, when we actively listen the person who is talking gets the message that we care and are aware of them, which helps them feel better and more secure (Bernstein, 2015). Being a good listener makes it much easier to build trust in our personal and professional relationships (Brunner, 2008). For example, active listening allows us to more easily see a situation from someone else’s perspective and can bring us closer to a shared understanding (Cochrane, 2019). Active listening can also lead the discussion to topics that normally would not be discussed and can help two people address hard emotions and problems they might be avoiding (Walker, 2016). Finally, we benefit by having a better understanding of others, which enables us to be better problem solvers.
If you are ready to start working on this important skill, try using the following strategies in your conversations with others:
- Set aside distractions. Put away phones and other devices and try to interact in a quiet environment. If it isn’t a good time for you to focus on what they’re saying, don’t be afraid to tell them.
- Refrain from trying to figure out what you are going to say next until they are finished speaking. If you are thinking about your response, you can’t completely focus on listening to them.
- Make eye contact! Body language is important, so make sure you’re facing the person who is talking and remember that slouchy posture can indicate a lack of interest.
- Use head nods and short verbal acknowledgements like “Yep” or “Uh huh” to show the speaker that you are following what they’re saying.
- Check for understanding by saying something like, “Let me make sure I understood you correctly, it sounds like you are saying…”
- Take note of your assumptions and biases and withhold judgement. Nothing shuts down the speaker quicker than feeling judged.
- Try to become genuinely interested in what they have to share with you and consider the situation from their perspective. When they sense you aren’t generally interested, it will only hurt the relationship.
Remember that active listening helps people get on the same page and creates stronger relationships. When we actively listen, our partners in conversation feel heard, which helps to build trust and increases empathy (Bernstein, 2015). While we can’t be perfect listeners all of the time and not all conversations require us to be fully engaged, putting effort into improving these skills and using these strategies can help us enhance almost any relationship.
- Bernstein, E. (2015, January 13). How ‘Active Listening’ Makes Both Participants in a Conversation Feel Better. Wall Street Journal (Online), 1.
- Brunner, B. (2008). Listening, Communication & Trust: Practitioners’ Perspectives of Business/Organizational Relationships. International Journal of Listening, 22(1), 73–82. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1080/10904010701808482
- Cavitt, D. (2021). Using the LISTENS Active Listening Technique to Mend or Deepen Relationships. Teaching Exceptional Children, 53(4), 268–269. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1177/0040059921996643
- Cochrane, G. J. D. (2019). Physicians and their primary relationships: How to be successful in both personal and professional realms. British Columbia Medical Journal, 61(5), 208–211.
- Gold, S. S. (2015). How to Be a Better listener. Scientific American Mind, 26(5), 13. https://doi-org.dist.lib.usu.edu/10.1038/scientificamericanmind0915-13
- Walker, D. (2016). I Can’t Hear You…but I’m Still Listening. Library Journal, 141(16), 20.