How to Drastically Improve Your Active Listening Skills (The Ultimate Guide)
“The irony of being a good conversationalist is that talking isn’t the most important piece; listening is what makes you memorable.”
It is a paradox, but the most important thing that makes you a good communicator is your listening skill, not your speaking skill.
Even more paradoxical is that 98 percent of the population confidently rates their listening skills as above average and considers themselves to be zen masters of communication.
But the truth is that we suck at listening.
Most of people, while pretending to fully listen to their partners, are busy formulating their own smart reply in their heads. After all, the average person talks at about 225 words per minute, and we can process up to 500 words per minute in our heads! Because we have nothing to do half the time during a conversation, we slip into our own words, judgments, or experiences.
True and honest listening has become so rare, that active listening is now an official skill you should master if you want to be successful.
Today, I present to you The Ultimate Guide to Active Listening — especially needed for those who consider themselves great listeners already. This guide is a 9000-word labor of love, defeated procrastination, research, and personal insights. I highly recommend that you to bookmark this page, since it’s a long read for one sitting. You can also download the PDF version of it, so you can read it offline:
<download form coming soon>
Table of Contents:
- What is True Active Listening?
- The Benefits of Becoming a Master of Active Listening
- Hurier Model of Listening
- What Is The Difference Between An Average Listener And A Great Listener?
- Levels Of Active Listening
- Active Listening Techniques
- Understanding Non-Verbal Cues
- What Prevents Active Listening?
- Where To Apply Active Listening Skills?
- Active Listening Exercises and Activities
- Active Listening Examples
- 3 Great Videos That Will Improve Your Communication Skills
- Sources and references
What is True Active Listening?
Active listening isn’t some new-found idea. In the 1940s Dr. Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research, developed the model of “reflective listening.” More recently one of his students, Richard Farson, renamed it “active listening.”
Simply put, active listening is a communication tool that involves mental and emotional involvement in conversation, which improves mutual understanding and creates an openness and trust between people.
Many people think that active listening is a trick of parroting or paraphrasing what is being said — a method that you can use to make people like you.
However, this assumption is far from the truth.
Active listening requires a whole set of skills, such as reflecting, interpreting, probing, summarizing, etc. It offers a wide range of techniques, including paraphrasing, which once applied can not only improve relationships, create a strong bond, and mutual understanding, but it can even provoke some deep insights and life-altering perception changes for both, the listener and the speaker.
Because of this, it’s important that you do not underestimate active listening.
It’s a powerful tool, well worth mastering and it can change lives.
To understand the power of active listening, you must first understand the difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing is a physical process.
You need to have a set of working ears (even one is enough), and the ability to hear sounds with almost no effort on your part.
Listening, however, is a mental process.
When you listen, you actually need to process the sounds you hear and understand what is being said.
Active listening is a mental process that requires your emotional involvement as well. In order to practice active listening, you need to fully understand the other person’s perspective and feelings — get the full picture. You must feel the situation from another person’s point of view. Active listening is not behaving like an absorbent sponge, just taking everything in. The true goal of active listening is to help the other person have a breakthrough.
The Benefits of Becoming a Master of Active Listening
There is only one instance where you would not need active listening — if you are living in a cave on an isolated island with no living human within a five-mile radius. However, if you have relationships, if you have kids (especially teens), if you want to climb the career ladder, have a successful business, or in any way succeed in life, you need to hone the skill of active listening.
Success is never achieved in isolation.
It always involves relationships. It is not a coincidence that the best predictor of success is not your IQ or how smart you are — it’s your EQ or how emotionally intelligent you are and the kind of relationships you can develop.
Active listening fosters good relationships, opens hearts (and minds!), builds trust, creates deep bonds, and often leads to breakthroughs. If that doesn’t get you excited about mastering the art of active listening, here is a list of major benefits you will enjoy once you start practicing the skill:
People open up and trust you.
Do you remember a conversation where you felt truly understood and supported? Do you remember the feeling of openness and connection with the person who listened to you? The first effect of active listening is mutual understanding, which creates deep connection between people.
In an era of constant distractions and meaningless conversations, such a feeling is a true treasure that everyone appreciates and nurtures.
It becomes easy to make true friends, to develop trusting relationships with your kids, to become irreplaceable at work and to win loyal employees and customers.
And the best thing is that this feeling of connection is not one-sided, you will also feel the deep richness of life once you are surrounded with people who deeply care about you and support you.
You will avoid misunderstanding.
More than half of conflicts spring from misunderstanding.
We are often guilty of jumping to conclusions and making quick assumptions based on our own experiences, beliefs, and feelings. Even though we speak the same language, the same words have different meanings to us. (Especially when it comes to romantic relationships.)
The first goal of active listening is to make sure you truly understand what the other person means, feels, and experiences. It helps you see the world from their perspective, step in their shoes, and set aside your own feelings and expectations.
After this experience, it becomes really challenging to find a conflict, because you truly understand where the other person is coming from.
It works greatly, even in simple situations like office communication. By making sure you understand what your boss is saying, you will learn to differentiate between the tasks your boss is giving you and the creative ideas he is toying with.
Active listening can resolve conflict before it even starts.
It is important to realize that active listening doesn’t automatically mean you have to agree with everything the other person says.
We all are different, we have different backgrounds, different beliefs, and opinions. But once you start practicing active listening, your empathy level goes sky high.
You will be able to accept another person’s point of view, and stick to your own at the same time, without having to prove that your opinion is the only right opinion in the world.
A deep appreciation of the variety and beauty of this world will come over you and this is what makes the world an interesting place to live. Imagine how horrible it would be to live where everyone has the same opinion as you!
Regardless, when you accept that the other person has a different set of beliefs, proving your own point is not necessary anymore. Even more, you can afford the luxury of being best friends and accept each other as you are, without having to change or somehow influence the other person. (It sometimes seems to me that my husband and I have different opinions about everything, but in spite of this we have remained best friends for many years.)
People become more open to compromises.
Once the person feels understood and not judged, he or she is much more open to compromise and finding the solution that would benefit all parties. There is no threat of being wrong, or being critiqued, and it makes you more open to other ideas and solutions. This makes finding compromises so much easier and natural.
I can’t tell you what a life saver it is in marriages!
Instead of arguing and proving each other wrong, you can both seek answers and solutions with mutual understanding and compassion. You make decisions as a team, choosing what is truly best for you and your family. This treasure alone is what makes the active listening skill a must have.
Active listening turns you into a charismatic person and an effective leader.
As you know, leadership is not about giving orders; it’s about understanding others — their motives, their desires, their feelings — even better than they do themselves. The ability to lead starts with ability to fully understand, and that’s where active listening is your golden tool.
The habit of actively listening to your team members creates a trusting and engaging atmosphere in the workplace. Your team feels supported, understood, and encouraged.
In such a workplace there is never a problem of employee motivation or lack of initiative and creative ideas.
Dr. Alicia Conill, a clinical associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, believes that listening can even become an effective medicine. Each patient has his own story to tell. However, studies show that it takes a physician less than 18 seconds to interrupt the patient.
Alicia writes, “Listening to someone’s story costs less than expensive diagnostic testing but is key to healing and diagnosis. I believe in the power of listening. I know firsthand that immeasurable healing takes place within me when someone stops, sits down and listens to my story.” (Full story here)
So, let’s learn how to keep our mouths shut, minds open, and prepare to be amazed.
Further reading on the importance of active listening:
Listening Is Loving – A beautiful article from Sandra Pawula about the true meaning of listening.
5 Simple Ways to Find Supporters and Grow Your Business – Growing a business requires a skill to develop and sustain relationships. This articles tells a great story of how one simple conversation can turn into a long-lasting relationship.
Listening Is an Overlooked Leadership Tool – Melissa Daimler tells a story of how one simple question can help leaders build engaged and motivated teams.
The High Cost of Poor Listening Skills – A heartbreaking story of how poor listening contributed to the biggest air crash in history, killing 583 people.
Hurier Model of Listening
Let’s start with a basic understanding of what listening is, and for this purpose let’s take a look at the Hurier model of listening.
Here’s what it officially looks like:
The process involves six separate skills, and each of them plays an important role when it comes to effective listening.
It all starts with physically hearing what is being said. If it’s too noisy, or if your ears are clogged from a cold, you need to ensure that the environment is fit for listening and that you are not standing in the middle of the dance floor. Otherwise, talk to your doctor about your ears.
If you want to fully participate in the conversation, you need to store the message in your memory — at least temporarily. You need to focus on the message, and hold on to what the person is saying, otherwise there will be little sense in the conversation.
The second task is to comprehend what is being said to you. If someone tells you a story in Latvian, and you don’t even know that such a language existed, even being an Active Listening Champion won’t help you. You won’t be able to apply your skills.
Once you understand the message, you need to assign a meaning to it. This is the most complex of the six skills that you need to master. Here, the non-verbal communication comes into play as well.
For example, if your employee tells you he understands what needs to be done, but he hesitates and has a concerned look on his face, the correct interpretation would be that he doesn’t understand what is required from him.
The process of evaluation means that you need to critically analyze the message you are hearing. This doesn’t mean you are being negative; it just means that you need to decide if you can trust the speaker and if the message is true.
Notice how responding is listed as the last and final step of the Hurier listening model. Often, we hurry to respond or start forming a reply in our head even before the speaker has finished talking. But responding should only take place after you’ve completed all the steps above! We will see an example of a good response from an active listener later, and we will also discuss some tips on how to respond in a way that builds trust and improves relationships.
If you want to dig deeper into Hurier model of listening, see the video series by Gary Iman.
You can also go through great examples by Amy Castro on how listening works in action:
What Is The Difference Between An Average Listener And A Great Listener?
As I’ve already mentioned, most people believe that they are great listeners. Many actually think that if you manage to not interrupt the person, and say, “mmm,” from time to time, you are instantly eligible for “The Greatest Listener in The World” diploma.
So, let’s make a distinction between who is an average listener and who is a great listener.
|Average Listener||Great Listener|
|Says “mmm” and “hmm” occasionally, and nods his head at the right moment||Asks questions that provoke insights and allows the person see other perspectives.|
|Keeps quiet and doesn’t interrupt.||Is active in the conversation. By asking questions he shows that he is fully engaged in the story, is deeply thinking about it, and analyzes the situation without judgment or criticism.|
|Understands what is being said and is able to repeat the latest sentence back when asked, “Are you listening to me?”||Is able to fully step in other person’s shoes, and empathize with the situation. Is able to understand the speaker’s feelings, motivation, and values, even if he disagrees with them.|
|Points out errors in the other person’s logic, feels competitive, and thinks that “only one of us can be right.”||Even when opinions don’t match, the differences are discussed openly and in collaboration mode, not in competitive mode. Gently challenges assumptions, but does it in a helpful and gentle way, not in the “I must win” way.|
|Acts like passive observer.||Acts like an active supporter. Encourages the other person, motivates him, raises his self-esteem.|
As you see, becoming a great listener requires much more than learning to keep silent. Let’s now take a look at the levels of listening and figure out where you stand!
Further reading on the differences between average listeners and great listeners:
What Great Listeners Actually Do – Jack Zenger speaks about a study on what actually makes someone a great listener. The results are surprising!
Five Levels Of Listening
Stephen R. Covey identified five levels of listening in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People :
Level 1: Ignoring
At this level the person is not truly listening at all. He may hear some sounds, but he doesn’t even make the effort to put meaning to the speaker’s words.
Level 2: Pretend Listening
We all do this from time to time. The person pretends to listen, nodding occasionally, but in truth he is busy thinking about his own problems and just waits for the other person to finish the story.
Level 3: Selective Listening
This happens when the person listens to part of the story, and just makes an assumption about the rest of the story. He neither takes the time nor effort to dive deep into the other person’s point of view in order to understand his or her feelings. That’s the level where most conflicts occur, because the listener hasn’t bothered to truly understand the speaker.
Level 4: Attentive Listener
At this level, we listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and we are actively engaged in conversation. The only problem is, we are filtering the story through our own perspective — judging if the speaker’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are “right or wrong.” We listen from our frame of reference, and at this level we are still far away from becoming a master of active listening.
Level 5: Empathic Listener
Only at this level do we step into other person’s shoes. You need to step out of your own world, forget for a moment about your own experiences, and try to live the story through your partner’s eyes. This skill takes time and effort to master, but it is well worth it.
'To truly listen means to transcend your autobiography, to get out of your own frame of reference, out of your own value system, out of your own history and judging tendencies, and to get deeply into the frame of reference or viewpoint of another person. This is called empathic listening. It is a very, very rare skill. But it is more than a skill. Much more.'- Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit
Active Listening Techniques
Now, we finally arrive at the core of the active listening method — specific techniques you can start practicing today to become a master of active listening.
I will go over five main active listening techniques, that will help you truly understand others, and build trusting relationships that last a lifetime.
Technique #1: Let Them Talk
“Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.” - Jalaluddin Rumi
This technique is listed as number one, not by accident. Before you can apply any other technique, you need to start with this one first.
First of all, you need to know the story. Their story. Not the one someone told you, or the one you assume happened. Even if you were the active participant in the situation, the other person’s perspective will often be drastically different from yours.
So, first, listen carefully. Keep silent, nod, maintain eye contact, and don’t be afraid of silent pauses. Let the person gather their thoughts, come up with additional details, emotions, and reflections.
Power Tip: Make a mental movie of what they say, imagining yourself in their situation. Not only does this help you remain focused, but you will also find it easier to step into the other person’s shoes. You will be able to feel more empathetic, understand the other person’s feelings and re-live the situation through their eyes.
The only exception to this power tip is to use this technique carefully if you are overly emotional, or if this is a topic that you care about deeply. If this is the case, it’s better to view it as a movie in the cinema — from a distance.
Further reading on the art of silence:
The Art of Silence – How the use of silence can make you powerful and charismatic.
The Secret Art of Silence: 5 Good Reasons To Master It In Negotiations – Ludovic Tendron shares how silence can be used as a powerful tool in negotiations.
The Wisdom of Silence: Learning to Talk Less and Say More – Great essay on the wisdom of silence and how to learn to talk less and listen more.
Mastering The Art of Shutting Up – When it comes to our most loved ones, keeping silent seems almost impossible. Learn the nice little trick inspired by Isaac Newton to stop a conflict — even if it’s going full steam.
Four Lessons I learned From Silence – Morgan Dix shares four powerful lessons she learned after deciding to stop talking on a camping trip deep in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.
Technique #2: Validate Emotions
Most people, if they manage to keep quiet and listen to the whole story, jump to the most enjoyable part — sharing their own similar story, or giving advice. This is the worst thing you could do, and this strategy would never create a feeling of understanding and connection.
Remain in the other person’s situation, and validate their emotions. Acknowledge the right to feel what the person feels without encouraging them to “hang in there” or giving them advice. Sometimes just saying, “I’m sorry. This really sucks…,” helps more than expert psychological consultation.
Sometimes all we need is someone to tell us, “No, you are not crazy, you have a reason to feel the way you feel!” We then feel seen and heard, we feel understood, we feel connected and supported.
Most people try to encourage us and say something uplifting like, “It will pass”, or even worse, “In a year you will laugh about it.”
Well, if I’m upset now, I don’t want to hear what will happen in a year. Maybe I’ll die from my sadness by then!
Phrases like “It could be worse,” or “Just let go,” give a weird feeling of uneasiness, like someone tries to deny my reality, my perception. Like I don’t have a right to feel angry, or upset, or tired. This is rarely a person’s intention, most of the time they are truly trying to help, but often this kind of help feels bitter and makes me stop sharing my feelings and emotions.
Here are some power phrases you can use to help the person feel understood and supported:
- This does sound like a bad day.
- That must have been hard.
- That must really hurt.
- So, you’re frustrated that the professor gave you so little warning.
- Wow, you seem really excited!
- Given how Amy treated you, I totally understand why you’d want to take a break from dating. That’s a lot to recover from.
- Well, no wonder you don’t feel like going out today.
Watch this amazing video on the power of listening with true empathy:
Further reading on encouragement, validation, and empathy:
In your rush to encourage, are you missing this life-changing step? – Caroline McGraw tells a wonderful story of how one simple Facebook post provoked all kinds of encouraging answers, but not one of them was validating what the person was going through.
Understanding Validation: A Way to Communicate Acceptance – Karyn Hall shares a powerful way to improve relationships.
Emotional Validation – At the end of this article, you will find a great example of a conversation that shows true validation.
You Don’t Need Other People to Validate Your Feelings – This article doesn’t talk about building relationships with others. But I still want to mention it, since it talks about something very important — building a relationship with yourself.
The Power of Invalidation: 5 Things Not To Say – Five phrases you need to avoid hurting someone unintentionally.
Emotion Coaching: One of the Most Important Parenting Practices in the History of the Universe – Christine Carter shows how validating your child’s feelings plays a crucial role in successful parenting.
Technique #3: Ask Questions
“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers”. - Tony Robbins
Asking questions is a separate skill that should be mastered.
Recent research shows that asking more questions is directly linked with likeability and responsiveness.
“The people who asked lots of questions were rated as more likeable than were those who asked fewer questions. Ironically, those who were asked lots of questions knew less about their partners, but still liked them more.”
Asking the right questions will not only lead to more information.
One skillful question can turn the other person’s world around, spark a deep insight, or reveal a not-seen-before solution to the problem. It can create a deep sense of connection and trust, and noticeably improve relationships.
Not a lot of people possess this skill. At school, we are rewarded for giving correct answers, never for asking questions. Furthermore, questioning conventional wisdom can be even dangerous, making you an outsider or viewed as a weirdo.
But when it comes to active listening, asking the right questions is a must-know skill.
The questions you ask need to be open, aimed to deepen the story or reveal another perspective, without any hint of criticism or assault.
First, let’s see what NOT to do:
1) Don’t asked closed-ended questions.
Questions that you can answer with a simple “yes” or “no” are called closed-ended questions. They rarely provoke any insights. If you ask someone, “Are you happy with the results?”, the answer you will get will be either “Yes” or “No” and won’t lead to any reflection or discussion. Instead, you should ask, “How do you feel about results?”
Power tip: 5Ws (and H)
To ask open-ended questions, begin your questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” or “how.”
2) Don’t ask questions that are not questions.
“What do you think of this terrible movie?”, is not really a question. It’s your opinion that better not be contradicted by anyone.
Don’t disguise your opinions or suggestions as insightful questions.
Some terrible examples include:
- “Don’t you think you should have…?”
- “Wouldn’t it be better to…?”
- “Can’t you…?”
Before you ask a question, make sure it is really a question.
3) Don’t ask rhetorical questions.
Rhetorical questions are reactionary by nature and are always emotional and opinionated. These questions tend to be very judgmental and are often perceived as a personal attack.
Often we ask them without even thinking, when responding overly emotionally to situation. For example:
- “What were you thinking?”
- “How could you do that?”
- “Do you want me drop from a heart attack?” (A classic question asked by some mothers — won’t point any fingers — after their kids do something they don’t approve of.)
These kind of accusing questions immediately provoke the defensive mechanism in another person, and no open conversation is possible after that.
You need to hold on to a non-judgmental position and remind yourself that judging others won’t lead to better relationships. Every person is a master of his own life, and your job is to understand another person’s world as they see it, without criticism and labeling.
Now, let’s take a look at the kind of questions we need to ask. Here are five types of questions you need to master to excel at active listening:
These questions are aimed to discover more, to dig deeper into story, to understand how it all began, and what the person experienced.
Here are some examples:
- How did it all began?
- What happened next?
- How did this make you feel?
These questions are aimed to make sure there is no misunderstanding, and they will reveal some additional details.
Remember, that even though we can use the same words, the meaning we give them might be completely different. So, it is never an excess step to clarify what the person means.
Many active listening practitioners would recommend the “parroting method,” where you repeat back what the person has just said, almost verbatim. They claim that this technique makes the person feel understood and open up more. But I would stay away from this “trick,” because it rarely sounds natural.
Use clarifying questions instead, they are much more genuine and show that you are indeed doing your best to understand the situation.
Here are some examples:
- Do you mean…?
- It sounds like…?
- Let me see if I follow you…
These are probably the most powerful type of questions that could provoke insight and reveal alternative solutions to a problem.
Reflective questions include hypothetical scenarios, such as:
- What would happen if…?
- What would XX say? (XX could be any authoritative figure, a fictional character, or a role model. In difficult situations, I sometimes ask myself, “What would Cinderella do?”)
- What if…?
Scaled questions often help to remove the pressure from an overly emotional situation, and bring the person to the core objective point of view. These questions attempt to measure what seems to be unmeasurable. For example:
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how sad did it make you feel?
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how serious do you feel the problem is?
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how difficult would it be to…?
These questions help find the solution and resolve the situation. The goal here is not only to reveal the solutions that the person has already considered, but also to open some new options, and point to alternative perspectives.
Some examples are:
- What would be the best-case scenario?
- What would…do?
- What would be the ideal outcome?
Recommended reading on the art of asking questions:
How to Make Friends by Asking Questions – David Ludden shows how to create a good impression and make friends by asking the right questions.
The One Conversational Tool That Will Make You Better at Absolutely Everything – Great article by Shane Snow on the art of asking questions, including powerful examples.
20 Powerful Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Life and Business – Marcel Schwantes presents a list of 20 empowering questions that you can ask not only your friends, but also yourself.
The Most Powerful Question You Will Ever Be Asked – Thomas Winterman shares one more question you can ask regularly that will help you understand others better.
Technique #4: No Judgment
When I was studying in the Milton Erickson coaching school, the first lesson was devoted to the 5 Erikson principles, which are the basis of all coaching practices.
These principles are useful, not only for coaches. If you make a conscious choice to live by them, these 5 simple ideas will fill your life with flourishing relationships and deep connections between you and your close ones.
Here they are:
- People are okay as they are.
- People already have all the resources within them to achieve what they want.
- People always make the best choice they can at the time.
- Every behavior has a positive intention.
- Change is inevitable.
I want you to pay special attention to principle #3: People always make the best choice they can at the time.
We all are unique, we all have different stories, values, beliefs, experiences, etc. There are no two similar people in the world. When we judge others, the first thing we do is compare, usually with ourselves.
- “I would never do this!”
- “How could she even think about it?”
- “What was she thinking about?”
These and similar thoughts occur spontaneously in our heads, and we start shaking our heads in disapproval, or rush to call our best friends to tell them what kind of weird (silly, immoral, bad, etc.) people live in the world.
It helps reminding oneself regularly that we cannot step in other person’s skin 100 percent. We can imagine a similar situation, only from our own perspective, but we will perceive it though our belief filters.
This technique is not really a technique at all.
It’s an attitude — one that is extremely useful, not only during active listening session but through your entire life.
Judging not only kills relationships, it also deprives you from the opportunity to learn from people. It literally shuts your mind down.
Here’s a great video from Leo Gura on how judgment can kill your happiness:
Power Tip: Always Be Looking for a Lesson.
Here’s an attitude that you can adopt to make yourself more open and more receptive to all diversities life has to offer. You have to enter a conversation assuming you have something to learn.
Everyone can be your teacher. You just need to be looking for the lesson. This mindset will help you to become more compassionate and empathetic.
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t”
Further reading on the power of non-judging:
Letting Go of Judging People – Great article from Leo Babauta on how to stop judging others by asking yourself a few questions.
For a Happier and Healthier Life, Stop Judging Others – Samiksha Kaintura writes about the dangers of judging others. It can not only make you lose friends, but it can also rob you of happiness.
3 Causes for Judging People (and How to Accept Yourself) – Jarl Forsman describes the three most common causes of judging others and what to do about them.
How We Can Stop Judging Others and Ourselves – Inspirational story by Amy Beth Acker about the path to non-judgment and what it takes.
Technique #5: Give feedback
This is the technique that you need to use extra caution with. Giving feedback without sounding judgmental is an art in itself.
Generally, the feedback can be divided into four categories:
- understanding, positive (“I understand what you say and accept your words and ideas.”)
- understanding, neutral (“I understand what you say but at this moment, I do not know whether I agree with you.”)
- understanding, negative (“I think I understand you, but I have some doubt.”)
- not understanding and requiring specification, better explanation (“I do not know whether I understood what you said correctly.”)
The third type of feedback is the trickiest, since you need to express a different opinion without hurting or judging the other person.
The best way to make sure you don’t hurt anyone’s feelings and keep the openness and trust you created earlier in the conversation, is to use I-message feedback.
Giving feedback with I-messages.
I-messages are a safe way to deliver constructive feedback, express your own feelings and opinions, especially when those are different from your partner’s point of view.
In short, the I-message formula is:
“I feel… (name the feeling) when… (describe the behaviour).”
For example, you might say, “I feel suspicious when someone tells me one thing, then I find out they are doing another.”
Notice that we don’t use the word “you” in the sentence at all. Sometimes it’s tempting to use the formula:
“I feel… (name the feeling) when you… (describe the behaviour).”
But this message still maintains a hint of blame and judgement, so it’s not effective. As soon as the person hears “you” in the sentence they interpret this as a personal attack.
Describing the behaviour in general, like you’re talking about someone else, takes off the pressure and doesn’t put the other person in a self-defending position. By not accusing the person directly, you let them keep a more open-minded and reflective position.
Here are some great examples of I-messages:
- I feel hurt because I didn’t get to make a choice.
- I feel horrified due to the animals being left to go hungry.
- I want everybody to be on time because we need to have this finished tomorrow.
- I feel anxious due to the risks involved in riding a motorbike in the city.
Further reading on giving feedback:
How to Share Your Unpopular Opinion (Without Being An Asshole) – Terrific article. Really, a must-read.
How to Express Feelings… and How Not to – Saying what you feel can intensify your connections…or it can wreck relationships. Susan Heitler teaches you how to express your feelings in order to improve relationships and be heard.
Great Leaders Give Feedback That Inspires Employees’ Best Performance. Here’s How They Do It – Telling an employee to make changes is never easy. Minda Zetlin shows us how to do it right.
Understanding Non-Verbal Cues
Non-verbal communication can contain as much as 65 percent of information in conversation. Sometimes it can even point to the opposite message the speaker is telling you.
Being able to correctly interpret non-verbal cues will make you much better listener, and by being aware of your own body language you will be able to better understand your own feelings and reactions.
Please note, that I’m not inviting you to force yourself into certain bodily positions that show openness and agreement, like many non-verbal guides encourage. Instead, just become aware of your own body language.
If you feel the urge to cross your arms, ask yourself, “What attitude do I currently have towards the speaker and his story?” Maybe you slipped into judgmental mode. If so, you need to remind yourself that everyone is different, and try to be more open-minded to other beliefs and values.
Let’s now go through the most common body language signs that you need to be able to interpret correctly.
“An eye can threaten like a loaded gun; or can insult like a hissing and kicking; or in its altered mood, by beams of kindness, make the heart dance with joy.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
People who maintain eye contact are usually perceived as more reliable, warm, sociable, honest, confident and active. Such a wide range of traits from one single behaviour!
Avoiding eye contact can be interpreted as lying, hiding something, lack of willingness to communicate, being offended or hurt.
By eye contact, I don’t mean looking into someone’s eyes without blinking. Eye contact should be gentle, somewhat unfocused, not too long and not too short. It needs to be comfortable. Here’s a good example of comfortable eye contact:
You can look at the bridge of the nose, an eyebrow, or just below the eyes. This way you won’t appear intimidating or threatening.
If the other person avoids the eye contact it is a signal that something is not right, and there is no open and trusting connection between you. You might want to reflect on what made you lose the connection, or just ask directly if everything is ok.
See how eyes can express all kind of emotions:
More interesting articles on eye contact:
The Levels of Eye Contact – Really interesting read by Mark Manson on different levels of eye contact.
Science shows us that eye contact is so powerful, it can make you lose connection with reality. – An in-depth article on the science behind eye contact, featuring some fascinating research on prolonged eye contact.
The Secrets to Making Non-Awkward Eye Contact – Lily Zhang shares some great tips on making eye contact feel comfortable and easy.
There are two main things you need to be aware of when it comes to general body posture: it can be either open or closed.
A person in a closed position might have his arms folded or legs crossed. He can also be positioned at a slight angle from you. Closed posture usually means that the person disagrees with something, or is uncomfortable. It can also mean that the conversation is not interesting to him.
In an open posture the person usually faces you directly, with their hands apart and not crossing over the body. An open posture communicates openness, trust, interest in someone and a readiness to listen.
Here how it looks like in action:
When listening to someone, ensure that you maintain a welcoming and open posture. Don’t cross your legs and don’t fold your arms — this can be read as a signal of criticism and judgment. Face the person forward, and lean slightly forward during the conversation.
Again, I don’t recommend to force yourself into this position if it doesn’t come naturally to you. If you feel like crossing your arms, check your mental attitude towards the person you’re listening to. It is more important to adjust your attitude, than to fake your body posture!
I don’t really want to go over dozens of types of facial expressions, and the art of recognizing micro-expressions, like Cal Lightman does. I do want to mention one specific thing that creates an instant bond and connection — smile.
Smiling is so powerful because it’s the most obvious signal that there is no threat and that everything is good. It is a clear sign of empathy.
So, the easiest way to make the other person feel safe and let him know you are a friend is to smile. It is the best way to make a good impression and create a connection.
“Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.’” - Dale Carnegie
During the conversation, nod lightly and smile occasionally. It is almost always appropriate, with the exception of someone telling you a tragic story. In this way, you show that you understand the speaker and follow along with the story.
More reading on the power of smiling:
16 Different Kinds of Smiles And What They Mean – All smiles are not created equal. Matthew Sweet made a list of 16 types of smiles.
3 Easy Ways to Spot Genuine & Fake Smiles – A great, quick guide that will help you become an expert at spotting fake smiles.
What Prevents Active Listening?
Now you know the most crucial active listening techniques and understand what set of skills is required to become a great listener. It is almost time to practice, but first I want to point to some roadblocks that prevent active listening.
Your personal state, both physical and psychological.
It sounds so basic, but it is very often overlooked. If you are hungry, or feel tired, or if you slept only two hours the previous night, you are a bad fit for an active listening session.
You need to feel good on a physical, mental, and emotional level. Otherwise, you simply won’t have the energy to listen to the other person with compassion and understanding — something that active listening requires a lot of!
Make sure you have eaten, feel energized and emotionally well. Then, you can safely practice your active listening skills!
Distractions and noise
Trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation in the middle of disco club is not the best idea in the world.
Try to organize a safe environment for the conversation. Invite your friend to a quiet and cozy café, and put your phone on silent so you won’t be disturbed.
High emotional involvement in the subject.
We all have our hot buttons — topics we simply can’t be objective about.
For me, personally, the most painful topics include abortion and abandonment of children. I simply can’t have an empathic conversation around those subjects. No matter how hard I try to be “open-minded” and put myself into a mindset of acceptance, I personally view abortion as simply killing a child. I cannot talk calmly about it. (Please understand that I’m not sharing this to judge anyone or impose my personal opinion — it’s just my personal thing. I simply want to share with you a real-life example that active listening is not possible 100 percent of the time.)
The hot button for one of my close friends is dog abuse. She can’t talk about it or discuss this topic. When the topic comes up, she just starts crying because thinking about it is too painful for her.
We all have our own individual hot buttons. If you know your own hot buttons, don’t try to engage in an active listening session about those particular topics. It will be doomed from the start.
Our personal filters
Not one of us is a blank sheet of paper. Everyone has their own set of filters firmly installed within them since childhood. Those filters include attitudes, previous experiences, values, biases, and subconscious beliefs.
We need to remember that every person lives in his own reality. All experiences are individual.
It is natural to perceive the information you hear through your own filtering system, but it helps greatly to remind yourself that the person who is talking to you has another filtering system installed.
Reminding yourself about this will help you to sustain from judging, labelling, and jumping to assumptions. In addition, it will help you make an extra effort to see the situation from another person’s side — through their set of experiences and beliefs.
Further reading on developing empathy:
How to Show Empathy: 4 Habits of Highly Empathic People – Farnoosh Brock shares a very personal story of her reaction to Robin Williams’ death and what we can learn about true empathy.
Developing Empathy: Walk a mile in someone’s shoes – Empathy is a learned skill, and Steve Mueller shares a great 7-step strategy to develop empathy skills.
Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – Roman Krznaric shows how to use empathy as a radical force for social transformation.
Where To Apply Active Listening Skills
In short, I’d recommend you use active listening skills in every situation where you talk to another human-being (including your kids). But let’s take a deeper look at the benefits you could reap by practicing active listening daily:
At Work And In Business
- Do you want to climb the corporate ladder effectively?
- Want to become a powerful leader?
- Want to maintain good relationships with your customers?
The habit of active listening will go a long way here.
Someone who struggles with listening skills will also likely struggle in their career. Employees who have trouble understanding information, accepting feedback, and learning new concepts will never make great teammates.
Listening is also a leader’s most important skill. Without the ability to listen, you can’t have the ability to lead. Consider the statistic that around 60 percent of people in offices today feel underappreciated and undervalued.
No wonder 70 percent are either actively looking for a new job or would very likely accept an offer if it came their way. It is crucial to be able to reach out to people in meaningful ways.
If your business is driven by your customers, communication skills are of high importance if you want to be able to understand your customer’s needs and desires. Being able to effectively listen to your customer is literally the crucial step that could make a difference between filing for bankruptcy or passing the 7-figure turnover.
Never ignore active listening at your workplace.
In counselling, therapy, and coaching
If you are a consultant, a therapist, or a coach, then you probably already know that active listening is an indispensable tool in your practice.
It is easily the most important coaching competency, as you can meet 100 percent of your clients’ needs just by listening!
Even in therapy, where treatment involves understanding the diagnosis and prescribing effective treatment, listening and being able to understand the patient is still crucially important. (See the story about the power of listening by Dr. Alicia Conill here. )
In marriage and in relationships
Many marriage counsellors promote active listening as the ultimate tool for a happy and long-lasting marriage, but I will be the first to admit that it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time.
The reason is simple:
Often, the problem you try to solve in your relationship is an ultra-loaded, emotional, hot topic for both of you.
And if you are overly emotionally involved in the subject, you simply won’t be able to use active listening skills effectively during the conversation.
John Gottman criticized active listening as an ineffective technique in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:
So, does this mean that active listening is useless in relationships?
Not at all. Just don’t use it as a conflict resolution tool!
Here are some situations where active listening holds its power:
- If your partner has a difficult day.
- If your spouse needs to make an important decision.
- If he or she needs to find a solution to some problem.
Basically, it’s powerful in a wide variety of everyday conversations, except for conflict resolutions! Active listening literally turns you into coach for your loved one, enabling you to assist them in choosing the best solution without giving direct advice.
That’s another area where active listening has proven to be extremely effective, especially with adolescents. It makes them feel understood — a feeling an average teen rarely experiences, as he rarely understands himself.
It is not always easy to do, because it requires you to step aside from your own emotions and beliefs. But the effort is totally worth it if you want to have a trusting and open connection with your child, even in turbulent times.
Gill Connell, author of A Moving Child is a Learning Child, explains why active listening is such a valuable form of parenting:
“Active listening is one of the most important ways you can send the message, ‘You’re important to me.' It a great way to foster self-esteem in powerful ways while encouraging him to communicate even more.”
Even Kate Middleton uses active listening as parenting technique!
Here are three common mistakes you need to avoid while talking to your child:
Don’t assume you know your child.
I know it is easier said than done; after all, who knows your kid better than you do? But still you need to refrain from quick assumptions.
I like to remind myself that I don’t even know myself that well (as I constantly surprise myself with weird behaviours and decisions). With that said, my loved ones should be treated with never-ending curiosity and awe, because I don’t truly realize their deepest desires, feelings, and beliefs.
This is a powerful state of mind that allows you to stop judgment and labeling. Prepare yourself to be surprised with the level of reasoning your kid is capable of — treat him with respect, ask open-ended questions, and wait patiently for the answers.
Don’t give advice.
This is another common urge that is hard to battle. After all, we know what’s best for our kid, we have more experience, and it’s just so much easier to give your child a ready-made solution that you already approve of!
But in life, your children need to learn to solve problems themselves. This means you’re allowed just a small nudge of guidance in the right direction. Here are some questions you could ask to help your teen solve a problem:
- What could be the best solution in this case?
- What would be the right thing to do?
- What would ___ (favorite hero) do in this case?
Accept your kid’s feelings, views, and emotions.
Sometimes it’s challenging. When it comes to our children we have our own strong feelings and emotions, and most often they don’t match with our child’s experience.
Remember that even though you gave life to this human-being, and it’s all your blood (well, at least 50 percent), there is still another person in front of you — not the extension of yourself.
Your children have their own beliefs (even though you implanted some during their childhood), their own experiences, their own inner decisions to make, their own emotions they go through.
Remember to accept them, and give your kids the right to experience what they currently experience. This will help your children to feel understood, accepted, and loved. And they will feel safe in sharing their troubles with you.
Active Listening Exercises and Activities:
The first skill you need to master, when it comes to learning the art of active listening, is the ability to focus. Below, you will find three great exercises that will help you fine-tune your listening ability.
Exercise 1: Three minutes of silence
Once a day try to stop all your activity for three minutes and just notice what is going on around you. Hear the sounds that you are surrounded with, see the colors, become fully aware of your surroundings.
This is a great awareness exercise that allows you to stop for a moment and step outside the constant chatter of your thoughts. Look around yourself and marvel at the richness and beauty of this world.
Exercise 2: Separate the sounds
If you find yourself in a noisy environment, try to separate the sounds and notice where each sound is coming from. Even though I am writing this in the early morning, while everyone is sleeping, I can still hear a melody of my surroundings. The ticking clock, birds singing outside, two cats wandering downstairs and waiting for their breakfast.
Practice focusing on one type of sound for a couple of minutes, then switch to another. This will allow you to focus on what other people tell you, even in noisy environments.
Exercise 3: Find music in ordinary sounds
This is an extension of the previous exercise. As you listen to each sound, separately find its own rhythm and music. Notice its harmony and beauty.
I love this awareness exercise, as I always feel calm and at peace after it. You can use it as a great stress-reliever as well! 🙂
More exercises to improve active listening skills:
Trainers’ Tips: Active listening exercises – Several great exercises to improve active listening skills within teams.
Workshop – A resource to a collection of listening exercises. Can be used during workshops and seminars.
6 Listening Skills Exercises to Promote Stronger Communication – Several games and exercises to be used in group settings.
Communication and Listening Exercises – A really great compilation of games and exercises to improve communication skills.
What Listening Skills Exercises Work Best? – A collection of 5 exercises that work especially well in group settings.