When your listener just isn’t getting it.

We all know that feeling. You’re pouring your heart out, speaking emphatically about something that has great meaning to you, and your listener just isn’t getting it. Moreover, they don’t seem to be trying to get it. They might be on their phone, or daydreaming, or examining what you’re sure must be a very intriguing aspect of the wall behind you. Whatever the reason, you leave the conversation frustrated and feeling as though you may as well have been talking to that wall, and that the wall probably would’ve made a better audience in the first place. Not only do these interactions lead to disconnect, discontentment, and the loss of valuable time and effort, they often result in the loss of the ideas or thoughts that one was attempting to communicate. So how do we prevent these externalities from coming to fruition? By listening actively.

Active listening, much like empathy, is a skill that can be improved with practice and over time. Unlike passive listening (or often, just ‘listening’,) active listening allows us to interact with the information we receive instead of simply absorbing it, which allows us to gain a more meaningful understanding of what is presented to us and of the person presenting it. Hence, active listening results in connection, contentment, effective use of time and effort, and a full understanding of that which is being communicated.

Not too bad for such a simple concept, huh? But even once you understand the benefits of active listening, where do you begin? Thankfully, active listening can be broken down into 5 basic components that are easily applied to any conversation or interaction.

  1. Pay attention.

Although this may seem like an obvious facet of listening to anyone, its importance cannot be understated. Be present when you’re having a conversation. Put away your phone, face your partner, and give them your undivided attention. This means communicating openness and dedication with your posture and facial expressions (uncross those arms and do away with that scowl!) to show them that they are your priority at the moment. It also means making the conversation your priority mentally- if you’re going over your to-do list or thinking about the episode of Amy Schumer you watched last night, it’s going to show, and you’re going to take away less from the interaction than you otherwise would.

  1. Show that you’re listening.

Just because someone is sitting in front of you, staring into your eyes, not moving a muscle, and displaying every sign that you are the sole thing they are focused on, does not mean that they are listening to a word you say. In fact, they are probably making you very much want to run away, thus ending the conversation. What we see here is that solely paying attention is not enough; one must also show that they’re listening as well. You can do this by nodding, smiling and making the appropriate facial expressions, and making small verbal comments such as “yes” and “mhmm”. As silly as it might sound in writing, showing the other person that you’re hearing what they’re saying and that you’re still checked into the conversation allows for the dialogue to continue.

  1. Provide Feedback.

Let your partner know that you’re not a robot who simply absorbs and regurgitates information. Show them that you’re following what they’re saying by paraphrasing and summarizing what they’ve presented to you so far. Try using phrases such as “what I’m hearing from you so far is…” or “you seem to be saying…”. Better yet, offer up your own relevant experiences and empathy, for instance, “I understand how you feel because…” or “that must have been really…”. This fosters reciprocity and trust in the relationship, as well as allowing the dialogue to be more of an exchange.

  1. Defer judgement.

Judgement is a waste of time. I’m going to repeat that once more, for those in the back: Judgement is a waste of time. For any conversation to be worthwhile, it needs to occur upon a foundation of mutual respect. Judgement is the termites of the magical treehouse of mutual respect. Before going into any conversation or interaction, take a moment to assess and suspend your own biases. This is also a good time to think about your privilege and where your opinions and beliefs come from- there is no so thing as too much self-awareness! Also, allow your partner to finish their points before asking questions or forming counterarguments; if you’re mentally rebutting what they’re saying, you’re more likely to miss their next important thoughts.

  1. Respond Appropriately

When it’s your turn to speak (and after you’ve given yourself a well deserved pat on the back for utilizing your newfound active listening skills), it’s important that you respond honestly, openly, and respectfully. This goes without saying, but to do so fosters respect, trust, and opens the door for future meaningful conversations.

Active listening is both a cornerstone and a product of meaningful conversations and can be applied to interactions with anyone, from your professor with a doctorate in biomedical engineering to your four-year-old niece. In short, it uses empathy and the inherent positivity of human connection to build stronger bridges and create more worthwhile exchanges, and is attainable by anyone and everyone. I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems like a pretty good deal.

By Lillian Bacon, Changemaker Institute Taylor Fellow