Every year my siblings look forward to the visit my husband and I make to my country of origin. They are very glad to see me, but they can’t wait to see him. Why? When he is with each one, it is as if that person is the only human being on the planet. My husband gazes at the person with unwavering interest, drawing them out, checking that he has heard things correctly, and backing up the whole encounter with congruent body language. In short, my husband has mastered the art of being interested. So many people long to be the life and soul of the party — that is, to be interesting — but let’s have a look at just how potent an asset it is to be a skilful listener instead.

The social and professional benefits of active listening

Linguists claim that the greatest human achievement is learning to speak our native language. Many of us were further trained by family and school to “speak properly”, but less emphasis is typically placed on listening properly. In our digital world of abbreviated texts and 140-character limits, the focus is on quick responses, and we can lose sight of the benefits of the gracious, unhurried act of deeply listening. True listening — not just the passive act of hearing, but the active act of engaging the brain, concentrating, and adding desire to comprehend — can do all of these things:

  1. It shows respect for the speaker and thereby has immense capacity to build relationships, from work to social to intimate connections
  2. It is the key to communication of any sort, as it is half of any communicative exchange
  3. Being genuinely listened to is very healing for the speaker and has immeasurable power to help resolve issues
  4. It enhances the listener’s career, for example:
    • It improves decision-making, because you gain necessary details and perspective to inform intelligent choices
    • It increases the listener’s “mana” as a wise, mature, trustworthy individual: the “go-to” person for trouble-shooting
    • Getting all of the available facts helps find solutions
    • The capacity to skilfully listen makes you into a mentor, and that automatically boosts your organisational standing
    • Deep listening allows you to auditorily “read between the lines”, so that camouflaged information can come to the fore, giving insight and understanding to an issue
  5. Active listening can accelerate your personal growth, as you gain self-discipline (because you aren’t jumping in with your own stuff!), empathy (because you are actively putting yourself into the speaker’s shoes), and maturity (because you stop prematurely judging people and situations).

How to cultivate active listening skills

If you’re like me (well, probably most of us), you may think, “Oh, yawn: listening skills? I’ve heard it all before!” But let’s make sure we can still pass Communication Skills 101. Here are a few of the rules:

  1. Check your body language. Before you even hear the first sentence from the other person, take note: are you making appropriate eye contact? Sitting/standing relatively straight and oriented toward the speaker? Do you have an open body posture, conveying openness to what you are about to hear (for example: crossing arms in front of your chest is not a good look!)? The point is to communicate respect and interest.
  2. Apply the 80/20 rule to the conversation. You listen 80% of the time and speak 20%.
  3. Ask open questions to gain understanding. Compare these two sentences: “Did you react angrily when the boss said you were being laid off?” versus “How did you respond to the boss saying you were being laid off?” The second sentence gives the speaker much more scope to experience and reflect on his/her feelings.
  4. Use “minimal encouragers” to draw out the speaker. This rule advocates using short phrases such as “Yes”, “I see what you mean”, “Umm”, or “Tell me more”. It shows interest and involvement and has the purpose of encouraging the speaker to keep talking. Mostly, it communicates that you as listener are on track.
  5. Reflect back to the speaker occasionally. Few listening skills are as powerful a tool as well-used paraphrases and reflections of feeling and meaning. A paraphrase reflects back what the speaker said in a condensed, nonjudgmental version of the facts and thoughts. A feelings reflection is a deeper cut, helping the speaker clarify implicit or even conflicting feelings. Meanings reflections are an advanced tool for identifying and responding to the significance of an event or issue for the speaker. All of these reflections should be used judiciously: too soon or too often and you seem either unskilled or inauthentic, or both. Besides, you might wreck the speaker’s flow! But used well, they can really help move a discourse forward.
  6. Reassure the speaker of confidentiality and be conscientious doing any promised follow-up. Don’t you get irritated with people who seem so understanding, but then don’t do what they said they would?
  7. Remember what the person said. If it’s in one ear and out the other, how deeply were you listening?

Skilled communicators have written reams on the art of good listening. But I maintain, if you really want to be a hit at those Christmas parties — or anywhere else in life — it boils down to doing like my husband and aiming not so much for being interesting as being interested.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance Blog. AIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.