It’s more than just making eye contact
By Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor
Most of us were taught about active listening in elementary school, weren’t we? We were taught how to let people take turns in conversation, how to listen without interrupting, and how to look someone in the eyes and nod to show that we were hearing and understanding what was being said. These are the basic rules that we learn to play with as we get older, but not all of us can maintain eye contact too well, and I don’t think I’ve made it through a single family dinner without interrupting… and being interrupted enthusiastically by fellow Petersons with points to prove.
However, when it comes to personal conversations—especially the heavier ones—many people struggle with how to listen in a way that helps. How many of us have felt wrong-footed and woefully inadequate as our loved ones outline difficult situations and tough problems they’re trying to work through, as we try to find a way to show that at the very least, we care? In those situations, it’s rarely about what we say; it’s about how we listen.
With that in mind, here’s a list of tips for better and more effective active listening, both for those fun work and school stories you share over coffee, and the harder situations where the best thing you can do to help is lend a caring ear.
Stories tend to have a beginning, middle, and an end; stories your loved ones tell you will often also have a point.
How often have you tried to tell a story or outline a problem to someone, only for them to jump in right at the beginning and barrel through without bothering to listen to what you’re really trying to tell them? This may seem stupidly simplistic, but it’s a principle we often forget to apply to the stories and situations our friends try to explain to us. Your job as an active listener is to see your friend through to the end. If you aren’t sure if your friend has finished, or gotten to the heart of what they’re trying to tell you, you can always ask before assuming; just make sure that you ask in a way that facilitates more conversation. Instead of asking “Are you finished?”, which can sound impatient and like you’re bored, relate it back to what they’re saying: “So you’re telling me your coworker stole your lunch, then was late coming back from their break? Have they done anything like this before?”
Active listening doesn’t have to be silent!
Honestly, people rarely want listeners to stare at them zombie-eyed until they finish speaking. Giving feedback as your friend speaks and asking questions shows that you’re really in the conversation with them, and trying your best to understand what they’re telling you. Just make sure that you’re not dominating the conversation through your feedback! Remember—your job is to see your friend to the point of what they’re trying to tell you. Anything you say should contribute to that goal. You can guide, you can encourage, but you shouldn’t take the wheel.
Before offering advice, make sure your friend is actually even looking for advice.
Especially in emotionally fraught situations, it’s always best to make sure you’re giving your friend the response they need. If you’re not sure, ask! “Do you just need to talk it out, or do you want my advice?” Often people are just looking for an empathetic ear or a sounding board, and not for an almighty guru who can show them the way. Ask, “What are you planning on doing next?” before offering any solutions.
Anecdotal empathy is a tool best used sparingly, and wisely.
It’s impossible not to relate someone’s experiences with your own, and by extension, it’s damn near impossible not to want to share what you learned from your experiences with someone going through something similar. Sentiments such as “I know exactly how you feel” and “I’ve been through that exact thing myself” may feel like empathetic responses, but can come across as dismissive.
If you do think you can genuinely help someone by relating your own experiences, always bring it back to the matter at hand. Make sure they know that you understand it’s not all “exactly the same.” Try, “I’ve been through something similar, this is what worked for me… I don’t know if that helps.” Don’t be afraid to sound unsure; if someone is confused or distressed about something, sometimes it can be comforting to know that other people are at just as much of a loss as they are. False confidence helps no one in these situations.
Feel with them… just not more than them.
One of the least helpful things anyone has ever done was start crying when I told them that I’d gotten a strange call from the doctor about a blood test I’d had done recently for a heart condition. No one should have to comfort you for something that is happening to them. It adds stress to an already stressful situation. Remember, you’re there to support, not be supported.
Knowing how to actively listen will not only make you an easier person to talk to, it will make you a better friend and confidant—which is what most people in high stress situations need.