Call to mind the last handful of conversations you’ve had. Were you truly absorbing the other person’s words – or, in all honesty, waiting for your turn to talk?
Between wanting to fill potential awkward silences and rapidly interpreting your chatting partner’s dialogue there’s often not much space for genuine processing of what your friend, partner or colleague may have said.
It’s not just you, by the way. A report from consultancy firm Accenture showed that our frantic, email-laden modern culture is playing a part in our inability to hear fully, with 64% of respondents said that listening is significantly more difficult in today’s digital workplace, thanks to streams of pings turning our heads in every direction. So it seems logical to assume the effect translates to our Instagram Story-punctuated leisure time, too.
‘Most of the time when we listen, we decode the message via our own belief system, which, in simple terms, means we process what we hear through the filter of what we already think,’ says psychotherapist and psychologist Francesca Moresi (@francescamoresipsychotherapy). ‘If you want to actively listen to someone important to you, like a family member, a partner or a friend, then you need to put yourself in their shoes and understand their belief system, so you can actually relate to them.’
She flags that it’s super common for us to not truly listen to what has been said by another person. ‘When I see couples in therapy, one of the first things I ask them to do is a technique called mirroring, in which they try talking to each other and taking turns to repeat back what the other has said,’ she explains. ‘It’s surprising just how many people ‘repeat’ words that are considerably different to what the other person actually said.’
The solution, she explains, lies in something called active listening, where the listener hears words and consciously holds back from interpreting them through the prism of their own worldview.
As to why all this matters? ‘We live in a world with things happening fast, and we often do not have proper attention paid to us,’ is the take of Susan Quilliam, a relationship expert and coach. ‘Gifting our attention to others creates a world in which people are attending to each other more – plus, the act of letting go of our internal dialogue allows us to experience people more deeply and fully.’
Francesca agrees. ‘If you listen properly, you will be able to communicate properly. This will lead to less negative emotions and less confrontation. You can feel safer and have the other person feel safer, in the relationship that exists between you.’
It’s not just that active listening is beneficial to relationships – distracted listening is a problem in and of itself. ‘When you never listen properly, you lose human connection,’ adds Susan. ‘While being open allows you to discover new levels of connection.’
Want closer, more connected relationships? Follow Susan’s active listening guide, below.
First off, like any other learned skill, you need two things: the motivation and the practice. Your motivation is the benefit of learning about the other person. Your practice is as follows...
*Start by keeping quiet as the other person talks. Do not say anything – you can nod and smile to show you’re engaged.
* Don’t be afraid to go back to silence, and wait for them to say something else.
*The tricky thing with active listening is that you likely have an inner dialogue – ‘the voice in your head’ – chattering and distracting you. Work on dialing it down. When a thought comes up, say to yourself: ‘I am going to think about this later,’ and return your mind to the other person’s words.
*When you’re more practiced, try asking questions with the motivation of helping the other person to understand themselves. You could say, for example: ‘it sounds like you need to explore that.’ If they pause, you might ask, ‘were you frightened?’ Doing this may help them to unlock their true feelings.
*If you want to let your friend or partner in on what you’re doing (because who said self-improvement needs to be a solo endeavour), you could agree to spend five minutes on three days of the next week listening to and focusing on them -and they you - at different times.
A caveat: Some people will not return your active listening and will simply allow you to listen and listen without checking in on you. Be cautious of giving too freely to such people.
You can watch a series on communication on Francesca’s YouTube Channel
by Claudia Canavan & Roisín Dervish-O’Kane, @allupinyourfeelings