A few weeks ago, I had an alarming revelation: I’m a crappy listener.
That came to light when someone important to me pointed out that I don’t seem to have any interest in what he does for work. âYour eyes just glaze over whenever I talk about my job,â he told me.
I couldn’t deny that. And it wasn’t limited to him — whenever someone spoke to me about something that I found less than fascinating, I had a tendency to tune it out. In reality, I could learn to appreciate my friend’s line of work, for example, if I learned to listen actively.
It’s an imperative skill — at work, and in your personal life. After all, if youâre never paying attention to what your boss, your significant other, or your kids are saying to you, how are they supposed to take you seriously? How can you expect them to come to you for advice, or with important information? When you donât listen, you set the precedent that you canât be trusted to absorb what matters to other people.
Thatâs why itâs imperative to learn how to listen actively. Itâs one thing to sit and make eye contact with the person speaking to you. But are you really absorbing what theyâre saying? And moreover, are you responding in a way that communicates that youâre actually listening — and that you have something worthwhile to say in return?
There are a few key phrases out there to demonstrate that youâre listening actively. And itâs true — youâre not going to care about every conversation that someone initiates with you. But even if the topic isnât important to you, the person sharing it might be. Read on to learn how to pay better attention, and how to show that youâre doing so.
How We Listen
To listen, according to Merriam-Webster, is âto hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true.â
Itâs that second part of the definition that stands out to me — especially when it comes to active listening. Itâs the genuine absorption of what someone is saying to us that reinforces and communicates how seriously weâre taking it, or appreciate its importance.
Of course, there are many reasons to listen. It helps us to satisfy different physiological goals. We listen to alter our moods, stay alert, and figure stuff out — in humans, thatâs been the case for pretty much as long as weâve existed. The process starts when we receive auditory stimuli. Then, our brains have to interpret that stimulus. That’s enhanced by other senses — like sight — which help us better interpret what we’re hearing. Thatâs important. When someone is sharing information with us, our non-verbal reaction also communicates to that person how actively weâre listening.
Once we receive and interpret auditory signals, we follow a series of steps that consist of recalling, evaluating, and responding to the information we consume:
Source: Matthew Edward Dyson
All three of those steps are imperative to active listening. Numerous studies have discovered how listening triggers a widespread network of activity throughout the entire brain — and itâs why auditory stimuli is often strongly linked to memory.
When We Don’t Listen
Of course, we have to be paying attention in order to be able to recall, evaluate, and respond to what someone tells us. And even if we are, how we respond can send a variety of signals back to our conversational counterpart. Statements like, âI see,â or, âCool,â for example, arenât exactly active phrases. Rather, they exhibit a state of passive listening that communicates we hear the person, but probably donât care.
And thatâs not how anyone — let alone important people in your life, like your family or your boss — wants to be treated. Even if your significant other is telling you about his day, responding with something like, âMm-hmmâ doesnât exactly send the message that you have great concern for whatâs being said.
And even then, our intentions might be good. According to a coaching presentation created by Viorica Milea, there are many non-malicious explanations behind why we donât listen. These are things like distractions, which abound in todayâs device-centric world, and our tendency to start thinking ahead while the person is still talking — what Milea calls “judging,” which happens when we’ve preemptively “made assumptions” about what the person is going to say.
The Mutual Benefit of Active Listening
Thatâs why active listening is good for both parties in a conversation. It benefits the person speaking by helping to insure that sheâs actually being heard. But it also benefits the listener — learning to put distractions and preemptive judgments (well-intended or not) aside will not only prevent you from missing important details, but also, can help teach you how to tune out unnecessary interruptions while focusing on other important tasks.
Practicing the incorporation of these phrases into conversations is a great way to get started. When someone is speaking to you, keep these in mind — if you feel your attention start to drift, or a notification appears on your phone, or you begin thinking ahead, come back to your mental inventory of these phrases to demonstrate and execute active listening.
6 Phrases to Demonstrate Active Listening
1) âDo you mean â¦ ?â
Sometimes, it seems like life is one long game of Telephone. Even if we interpreted something one way, the person who said it may have meant it completely differently.
Thatâs why itâs important to make sure youâre getting the full story from the person youâre listening to, and understanding it correctly. By asking for clarification, youâre not only encouraging more details from someone who might be timid about bringing something up, but also, youâre making sure you actually heard a statement as it was intended.
- âIâm not sure I understand.â
- âCould you tell me a bit more about that?â
2) âIt sounds like â¦ â
This phrase is another one that helps to provide clarification by demonstrating your empathy. But be careful with this one, and make sure youâre not telling your counterpart how she feels, but rather, phrasing it as an expression of how you interpret her emotions.
I have a tough time admitting when Iâm upset about something, especially in a professional setting. But my manager happens to excel at active listening, and is very good at reading what Iâm not saying in a conversation — and responding in kind. When I was disappointed about the outcome of a project, for example, I didnât exactly say so, but she said, âIt sounds like youâre feeling a little defeated.â I was, and having her say that to me out loud helped me take a proactive approach to the project moving forward.
- âWhat Iâm hearing is â¦ “
- âYou seem a bit â¦ â
This phrase is one that Milea helps to demonstrate encouragement during a conversation. It reminds the person speaking that youâre paying attention by encouraging them to elaborate on something theyâve said to you.
- âYouâre kidding.â
4) âIâve noticed that â¦ â
Hereâs another term that shows how much attention youâre paying. By pointing out your observations about someoneâs behavior or tendencies while sheâs speaking, youâre not only fully absorbing her words — youâre also taking the non-verbal communication into consideration.
Instructors at the University of Central Florida use the example of, âIâve just been noticing that when you talk about your conclusions, you smile. That makes me think youâre comfortable with the direction.â Making sure you know what someone means isnât limited to the spoken word — you want to clarify what nonverbal behavior could indicate, too.
5) âLet me make sure Iâve got this right.â
Another method of active listening is checking in with your counterpart to summarize what youâve heard them say thus far. By repeating back something to the person youâre listening to, youâre not only demonstrating that youâve been paying attention, but also, youâre further ensuring that you understand what the person actually means, and that you heard her correctly.
- âThese are the main points Iâve heard you make so far.â
- âLetâs make sure Iâm hearing you correctly.â
- âLetâs pause to make sure weâre on the same page.â
6) âIâm sorry. That really sucks.â
I joke about this one with my colleagues a lot. It goes back to the big idea of empathy and those occasions when, for just a moment, you want to have a pity party, rather than receiving proactive advice. Of course, youâre ready for that advice eventually, but not right away.
Thatâs why, when someone is sharing his frustrations with you, one of the most impactful things you can do is verbally acknowledge how crummy the situation is. Rather than invalidating the personâs emotions by immediately launching into suggestions for what she should do, youâre pausing to provide empathy, and to allow the person to work through whatâs bothering him.
- âIâm sorry youâre going through that.â
- âWhat a crappy situation to be in. Iâm sorry.â
- âThatâs rough. How can I help?â
We get it. Youâve got enough on your plate. Thereâs always a deadline, and thereâs always somewhere you need to be. It can be hard to genuinely pay attention, especially when youâve got a long to-do list thatâs occupying your mental energy.
But as weâve mentioned, active listening doesnât just benefit your conversational counterpart — you also stand to gain from it. From making sure you donât miss important details, to exercising focus for any important task, putting these phrases into practice can help you become a proactive, empathetic listener.
What are your go-to phrases to demonstrate active listening? Let us know in the comments.