"Experts say we’re naturally just not good at listening for a whole range of reasons. We have a tendency to swap stories, so we interrupt. We’re uncomfortable with emotions, so we avoid focusing too closely on someone else’s. We’d rather talk about ourselves, so we rush the talker along.
And there’s something relationship researchers call “listener burnout.” We’ve all endured someone’s endless droning on and on, often about the same old problems. When we offer quick advice or suggest ways to fix the situation, we may be unconsciously trying to protect ourselves from burnout.
“Good listeners overcome their natural inclination to fix the other’s problems and to keep the conversation brief,” says Graham D. Bodie, an associate professor of communication studies at Louisiana State University, who studies listening.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Practice “active listening,” a term experts use to describe the way you listen when you are an engaged presence in the conversation, fully in the moment with the other person, not just sitting there, half paying attention.
Think of the different ways you can listen to music. You can put it on in the background while you’re doing something else. Or you can put on your headphones, give it your undivided attention and really notice how it affects you. That is active listening.
To actively listen to a person, you will need to master certain behaviors—some verbal, some nonverbal—that signal your interest. Researchers call these “immediacy behaviors.”
Start by putting your phone away and turning off the TV. Sit close to and lean toward your loved one. Let your facial expressions reflect what he or she is saying. Be sure to make eye contact. (Your mother was right when she said, “Look at me when I am talking.”)
You are sending an unspoken message: “You have my attention. I am here for you.” You also will need to signal this verbally.
Legitimize the other person’s feelings by reflecting them back: “That must have been stressful for you.” Draw the other person out by asking open-ended questions: “How did that make you feel?” “What are you going to do now?”
Use short words or even sounds such as “yep,” “right,” “mmm hmm”—all known as “minimal encouragers”—to urge them to continue. Periodically paraphrase what your loved one is saying, and follow the paraphrase with something researchers call the “checkout”: “Am I understanding you correctly?”
“Active listening starts with the real desire to help another person think through their feelings,” says Dr. Bodie. It takes time. “Don’t try to fix the problem right out of the gate, and don’t rush things,” he says."