So You Think You’re a Good Listener?: What Active Listening Really Entails

“You know what I mean?”

A friend finishes speaking and looks to you for feedback. Only problem is, you weren’t listening. Maybe you were checking a text on your phone, or maybe you were thinking ahead to a story you’d like to share. Maybe you’re just too stoned. Rather than admit the mistake and ask your friend to repeat themselves, you’ll probably nod and say something nonspecific, like, “Yes, I do know what you mean.”

Now: does that make you a bad listener?

Most of us would answer no — but it turns out listening is a lot like driving, in that most everyone who does it considers themselves above average. One study by William V Haney, author of “Communication and Interpersonal Relations: Text and Cases,” found that, among 8,000 working adults, virtually all of them believed they communicated at least as effectively as their coworkers. Obviously, not everyone can be above average, but the bar in this case is even lower than one might expect, as research suggests the average person listens at only 25 percent efficiency.

“Listening is a socially desirable trait, so we want to consider ourselves competent,” remarks Graham Bodie, a University of Mississippi professor whose research focuses on how to improve listening to foster better relationships. “The other issue is [that] most of us haven’t been taught how to listen, so we assume it comes naturally, like artistic ability.”

According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR)article authored by leadership development firm Zenger/Folkman, we generally believe listening comes down to three core skills: not talking while others are speaking; showing you’re listening through verbal or nonverbal cues like nodding; and being able to repeat what’s been said almost word-for-word.

Though these behaviors alone may serve us well in most interactions, they fall short in support situations, when we’re called upon to provide emotional reassurance for friends or loved ones in need.

“The issue is, when you encounter a conversation that’s problematic, you think you can multitask or do other activities while still giving your full attention,” explains Bodie. To a certain extent, this is natural. Concentrating while listening, according to another HBR assessment, is more difficult than any other form of personal communication, in part because we think more quickly than we talk. While your friend speaks at a rate of 125 words per minute, your mind races much faster, so to remain focused, this extra capacity must be spent wisely.

What Active Listening Really Entails

The best listeners concurrently engage in four mental activities while listening: anticipating what the speaker will say next; weighing the evidence they provide to support their points or feelings; mentally summarizing — but not necessarily memorizing — their main points thus far; and “listening between the lines” to glean meaning from nonverbal communication.

Effective listeners also show interest through verbal “active listening” behaviors, like asking open-ended questions and paraphrasing the speaker’s points for clarification, which have been found to make study participants feel better understood than when they receive advice or simple acknowledgments.

To provide helpful support, clarifying questions and responses should be highly person-centered, meaning they explicitly reflect and legitimize the speaker’s feelings, in contrast to low person-centered messages that criticize or deny them. Numerous studies, including Brant R. Burleson’s research as described in “Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication,” show that highly person-centered messages are evaluated as more sensitive and helpful than those low to moderate in person-centeredness in most all support situations.

Some of the common traps listeners fall into are “rebound listening” — stealing the conversational spotlight for oneself, whether consciously or not — and offering practical rather than emotional support. Unsolicited advice can all-too-easily backfire and come across as either uninformed or impinging on one’s self-perceptions and personal freedom.

“There’s a model of adequate support where advice comes last in the process,” Bodie illustrates. “It’s much more likely to be implemented if you first provide verbally person-centered emotional support, followed by problem analysis.”

The best ways to affect change in others appears to be by modeling behavior to show its positive consequences or asking questions that gently challenge old assumptions and promote new insight. Unfortunately, this can be difficult in a polarized political climate, where even small disagreements conflate to personal attacks. Our emotions often act as aural filters, amplifying stances we agree with and tuning out those we don’t. The solution is simply to hear out opposing viewpoints and fully consider evidence that challenges our own before making judgments — easier said than done, of course.

But providing effective emotional support won’t just make your friends feel better; it can do the same for you. A Stanford study, “Emotional and Instrumental Support Provision Interact to Predict Well-Being,”found that emotional support consistently predicted feelings of well-being for both provider and recipient. Practical support only helped both parties when accompanied by emotional support.

There’s ample data out there on the far-reaching importance of listening — one of the skills most strongly correlated with effective leadership and professional or academic success — yet we as a culture still devote very little time and effort into cultivating our listening skills. Perhaps that’s why our public discourse is in crisis, or why nearly half of Americans report being lonely, according to scientific journal Nature Communications, which makes us more susceptible to disease and early death.

“If there’s one fundamental human need outside food and shelter, it’s the need to belong and feel like part of a community,” says Bodie. “I call that the need to be heard.”

The situation may be improving, thanks to the institution of listening classes at many colleges and public schools, as well as non-profit ventures like Urban Confessional in LA that provide “free listening” services, but to truly promote a more compassionate society, we’ll need to redefine how we think about listening and start honing our skills on a daily basis, as we do with physical exercise. It’s easy enough to find someone to practice with, and it’s one of the best things you can do for someone else to show their feelings matter to you.

What Style of Listener Are You?

We all focus on different aspects of a conversation, and these generalized areas of focus are categorized into four distinct listening “styles” people tend to exhibit. Try and figure out which one most fits you, keeping in mind our styles can vary depending on context.

Content-oriented: When listening, you’re more concerned with the content of what’s being said than who’s saying it or how they feel. You may nitpick facts and figures or interrupt to question the speaker’s logic in seeking to understand or evaluate the worth of their argument. You think analytically but may often disregard ideas if they’re not neatly presented.

Action-oriented: When listening, you’re most concerned with what actions will be taken to address the subject at hand. You seek clear answers but may come off as controlling in your haste to prescribe concrete solutions to others’ problems.

Time-oriented: When listening, you’re most concerned with how long the other person is taking to speak. You probably like to compartmentalize your schedule to manage time as best as possible, and so become restless when someone exceeds the time you’ve allocated for hearing them out. You may try to escape the conversation by talking about how busy you are or try to offer quick fixes for others’ problems.

People-oriented: When listening, you’re most concerned with the person speaking and their feelings. You seek to understand others’ perspectives and find meaning from your relationships, often through empathy or shared vulnerability. At times, you may be almost too compassionate and get drawn into unwise relationships. Nonetheless, people in need of emotional support tend to prefer this listening style, and women are statistically better at providing it.

What Active Listening Really Entails