How To Practice Active Listening (Rather Than Just Hearing) To Protect Your Relationships

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot
Raise your hand if you’ve ever zoned out as your friend gave you the play-by-play of their latest dating endeavor, or while your partner told you about their day. It’s awkward, but understandable. Between the constant pings from digital distractions and the never-ending need to multitask, truly listening—all-in, sans interruptions—has become an elusive art.

By no surprise, this isn’t doing our relationships any favors. (Who wants to spend time with someone who is seemingly not interested in you and your needs?) Luckily, there’s a skill that has the power to change the way we connect with those around us: active listening.

Experts In This Article

Active listening goes beyond the passive act of hearing words; it involves truly engaging with another person's thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Instead of scrolling on your phone during the conversation, thinking about all that’s left to check off your to-do list, or focusing on what you’re going to say next, Greg Kushnick, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, says you’re putting in an intentional effort to listen and respond in a way that makes the other person feel heard and understood.

"At the core of active listening is a show of respect, which is an essential ingredient of healthy friendships and partnerships." —Greg Kushnick, PsyD

“Active listening requires that you offer undivided attention and respond verbally and nonverbally in a way that conveys full interest and respect,” says Dr. Kushnick. “It requires the listener to access a level of self-awareness that precludes all forms of bias, prejudice, and pre-assumption from interfering with an intention to hear the entirety of the message and reflect that the speaker's message was received as it was communicated.”

In our busy lives, we “hear” a lot of people. But by taking the time to practice active listening, we can deeply benefit our relationships with those around us.

Why practicing active listening is crucial to our relationships

When active listening is absent, a host of consequences can arise and lead to the deterioration of even your closest relationships, whether that’s with your partner, friends, or family.

“It’s crucial to practice active listening in your relationships, because otherwise we can fall into the same destructive communication patterns where we interrupt, attack each other, defend, criticize, or argue,” says Paulette Sherman, PsyD, a psychologist, relationship expert, and author of Dating from the Inside Out. “Both people speak from their own positions and it can become a circular loop, where no one is really listening. After a while of this, partners stop sharing and talking and begin to stonewall one another. They stop feeling loved or even asking for what they need, or expressing how they feel. When people feel really heard, respect and partnership grows.”

On the other hand, Dr. Kushnick says that active listening has the power to promote a sense of closeness in both the speaker and the listener. You don’t need to buy fancy gifts to make someone feel special. Sometimes all it takes is truly listening to what they have to say.

“At the core of active listening is a show of respect, which is an essential ingredient of healthy friendships and partnerships,” he says. “The act of reflecting back to someone that you are fully present for their words and feelings, putting aside all biases, and avoiding self-referential responses that interrupt the speaker allows for an energy exchange that facilitates human bonding on a high level.”

How can you tell if someone isn’t actually listening?

It’s easy to tell when someone—maybe even yourself—isn’t practicing active listening. According to Dr. Sherman, telltale signs to look out for are frequent interruptions, lack of eye contact or physical engagement while conversing, not retaining or remembering what you’ve said, and doing other things during the conversation.

Dr. Kushnick says another sign is when someone always seems to be waiting for the right moment to jump in for their turn to speak, rather than truly listening to what you’re saying and responding accordingly once you’re finished. Or, of course, scrolling through their phone or texting as you’re speaking to them. “Active listening cannot occur with a screen also present,” he says. “Even holding a phone in your hand limits one's ability to actively listen because of potential for interruption or the subtle expectation of needing to use your phone.”

All of these instances can make someone feel unheard and even ignored. One too many conversations like this, and it’s easy to see why romantic relationships or friendships fizzle out over time. You stop feeling important, and who wants to talk or even spend time with someone who makes them feel as though what they’re saying doesn’t matter?

Active listening tips to help you better implement it in your life

Now that you know how crucial active listening is in your relationships, you’re probably wondering how to go about practicing it yourself. “Skills like active listening, the art of compromise, creating a shared vision, and other relationship skills are learnable,” says Dr. Sherman. “We may not have learned them in our families, and we do not learn them in school. Yet, our relationships are the source of much of our happiness, so it pays to educate ourselves, even later in life.”

If you want to become an active listener, here are some steps to keep in mind during your next conversation to ensure you’re truly listening to the speaker—not just hearing them.

1. Set an intention

At the start of every conversation, Dr. Kushnick says to set an intention to make the speaker feel heard and understood. “Tell yourself that you are committed to finding the ‘gold’ in the speaker,” he says. “Remind yourself that everyone has something useful to offer. You are essentially committing to being the student and letting the speaker be the teacher.

2. Commit to the conversation

Dr. Kushnick says you need to ensure you’re “listening to the speaker with wholehearted, focused attention.” Be sure to pay attention to both their verbal and nonverbal communication, and avoid allocating your mental energy toward forming a question or comment—just listen and be present. (Read: Put your phone away.)

You can also demonstrate that you’re listening with both verbal and non-verbal cues during the conversation. Dr. Kushnick recommends encouraging the speaker to continue talking by nodding and/or smiling or responding with cues (such as “right” and “aha”). “Check in with your body language and make adjustments so that you continue to show openness and full attention,” he says.

3. Offer feedback when it feels appropriate

Avoid jumping into the conversation with your own opinions and beliefs the first chance you get. Instead, Dr. Kushnick says to keep the focus on the other person by making an effort to engage with what they’re saying. “Ask clarifying questions and convey understanding,” he says. “You can achieve this by saying, ‘I hear you saying...’ or ‘Tell me what you mean when you say...’ or ‘Please tell me if I understand this correctly…’” Don't just assume you know how someone is feeling, either.

Active listening is a skill that may not come naturally at first, but Dr. Sherman says with practice, it can become second nature. By putting in the effort to hone your skills, you’ll create an environment that allows your loved ones to feel genuinely heard and valued, fostering stronger bonds and deeper connections.

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