You can hear someone’s words without listening actively, but this typically isn’t the route to effective communication.
Chances are, you’ve experienced some inactive listening yourself.
Maybe you’ve tried to vent to a friend about difficulties at work while they kept their eyes on their phone, occasionally holding it up to show you their latest Tinder match. They said “Huh” or “Wow” or “That sucks” in mostly the right places, but you still didn’t feel as if they really understood your struggles.
Active listening requires more than open ears — it involves actually engaging with the speaker by showing empathy and support. It shows you care about what the other person has to say, and signals that you’ll come away with an understanding that goes below the surface.
People often try to multitask in order to make the most of their limited time. That’s understandable. Most people are busy. When it comes to active listening, though, you’ll want to show the speaker you’re focusing on them, not your grocery list or social media feed.
Maybe you wouldn’t dream of playing a video game while your partner rants about their stressful day, but you feel as if you can still listen while doing low-brainpower tasks, like laundry or paperwork.
But even activities that don’t demand your full attention can still divide it, so it’s generally best to put down what you’re doing and fully concentrate on them. Distracted listening can give the speaker the impression their concerns don’t matter.
Paying attention also means:
- Your thoughts stay with them instead of wandering to something completely unrelated, like your dinner plans.
- You don’t redirect the conversation to yourself. Cutting them off to share your story invalidates their experience.
- You’re not planning your response. If you’re thinking about what you intend to say, you’re not fully listening to what they’re saying. You could miss something that requires a completely different reply.
If you really can’t stop what you’re doing when a loved one wants to talk, you might feel tempted to try and balance activities. Yet when you attempt to have a meaningful conversation while doing something else, you’ll more likely end up half-focusing on both tasks.
A better strategy is to let them know you hear them, explain you aren’t currently available, and make a concrete plan to reconnect. Try something like:
- “That sounds so stressful. I want to hear more, but I’m not free to talk right now. Can I call you back in just a few hours when I can give you my full attention?”
You’re showing respect by doing this, not brushing them off — as long as you do actually reconnect.
You may not realize it, but your body plays an important role in communication. Open, relaxed body language tells the other person you’re involved in the conversation, not ready to make your excuses at the earliest possible opportunity.
- Face the other person.
- Lean in slightly.
- Relax your body, uncrossing your arms and legs to show an attitude of openness.
- Make eye contact. You don’t need to stare directly into their eyes the whole time, though. It’s also helpful to pay attention to their face in general, since expressions can give you more clues toward their emotions.
- Nod as you listen.
Keep in mind your expressions can say a lot, too. Concern and compassion might show on your face pretty clearly, but try to stay mindful of how you display other emotions. You might feel frustrated or annoyed on your loved one’s behalf, but they could potentially misinterpret this as frustration or irritation toward them.
- sighing or yawning
- rolling your eyes or fidgeting
- looking away or checking your phone or watch
- maintaining a very rigid posture or crossing your arms and legs
Mirroring, or reflecting someone’s movements and gestures, can help build rapport in conversations. If they lean in, you might do the same. If they smile and shake their head, an answering smile and head shake from you helps make it clear you’re paying attention. It can also invite a sense of closeness and companionship by sending the message, “We’re on the same level.”
You probably learned not to interrupt in childhood, but a reminder never hurts.
People sometimes interrupt with the best of intentions:
- When your friend tells you something awful their partner did, it’s natural to want to jump in and express your outrage. Your friend might appreciate your show of solidarity, but this interruption could still derail their train of thought and leave them feeling unheard.
- Maybe a few questions come up as your partner explains a difficult family situation. You don’t want to forget your questions, but you also don’t want to focus on them so intently that you pay less attention to your partner. Jot them down, if you can, and wait for a natural pause in the conversation to ask them. They could even answer your questions as they keep talking.
In general, it’s best to avoid cutting in, unless you get too confused and need immediate clarification to continue following the conversation.
When a conversation lulls, people often have an urge to fill the silence with an immediate reply. Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.
You were listening, not formulating a reply, so it’s perfectly understandable to need a moment or two to offer a thoughtful response. In most cases, the other person will probably appreciate your taking the time to reflect on their words and consider your thoughts, so there’s usually no need to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.
If it helps, you can always let them know you’re taking a moment to collect your thoughts.
Silence can also help when you sense they have more to say. Waiting patiently gives them an opportunity to offer any final thoughts or expand on anything they’ve already shared.
Reflecting, or paraphrasing, is a key component of active listening, but many people find it a tricky skill to master.
When you paraphrase, you use your own words to restate what you’ve heard. Note the emphasis on “your own words.” You don’t want to simply repeat what they say. This tells them you listened, yes, but it doesn’t tell them you understand.
Say your sister and her partner are trying to work out some relationship issues. Since you and your sister get along well, she vents to you from time to time. One day she tells you, “I’m so frustrated. I’m desperately trying to work on communication so we can save this relationship, but it seems like they don’t care one way or the other.”
- Parroting might sound something like this: “So, you’re frustrated because you’re trying to communicate but they don’t seem to care about the relationship.”
- Reflection, on the other hand, might sound more like this: “It sounds like you’re making an enormous effort to draw them out and have more productive conversations, but you get the feeling they seem less invested in staying together. Is that right?”
Parroting often sounds flat, and it doesn’t always keep a conversation flowing. Reflecting takes things a step further, since it conveys your understanding while also encouraging them to share more.
Someone communicating their distress or personal challenges won’t necessarily want a solution. They may just want to know someone hears them and cares about what they’re going through. They likely wouldn’t open up and share their feelings if they didn’t trust you. You can honor this trust, in part, by acknowledging their emotions as valid.
A few examples of validating phrases:
- “I imagine that feels pretty hurtful.”
- “That sounds stressful.”
- “I can see how that would make you feel overwhelmed.”
Maybe you think you would have handled things differently or believe the situation doesn’t warrant the degree of anger or sadness they experience. Even so, stay focused on their perspective instead of questioning their emotions. You can still validate someone when you disagree.
It also helps to avoid getting defensive if their feelings are directed toward you. Maybe you don’t consider the issue significant, but they clearly feel differently. Acknowledging their frustration instead of brushing it off typically leads to more productive communication and conflict resolution. Your feelings are valid, too, but you’ll have a chance to share once you fully hear them out.
Active listening is part of communication, so aim to have a dialogue. A few quiet pauses are just fine, but try to avoid letting the silence stretch out.
While it’s important to listen patiently when someone talks, asking questions when the conversation reaches a natural pause shows your interest and involvement. Here’s where following along pays off. Listening half-heartedly generally means your questions won’t have much depth to them.
Open-ended questions invite the most detail:
- “What did you do after that?”
- “How are you feeling after that happened?”
Questions with one-word answers, like “yes” or “no,” usually don’t offer much insight, especially when you’re getting to know someone. These questions can also give the impression you’re going through the motions but don’t really care about the answer.
- “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Do you like this class?”
- “What did you do last weekend?” or “So, what do you think about this class so far?”
Questions also help when you want to make sure you understood someone correctly:
- “It sounds like you’re stressed because your boss completely forgot you volunteered for a big project and gave you another assignment to work on this week. Is that right?”
Checking back in later is a great way to show someone you care:
- “I was just thinking of what we talked about the other day. How did that work out for you?”
At some point, you’ll probably find yourself listening to something you simply don’t agree with, but briefly setting aside your own opinions can help you keep an open mind.
Maybe your best friend feels wronged by his partner, but from what you’ve heard, it seems pretty clear your friend messed up. Still, you might try (as the saying goes) walking in their shoes. The situation could be more complex than you realize.
Even if it isn’t, and your friend really is the one in the wrong, you can still let them vent without judging their behavior.
It also helps to pay attention to the way you phrase questions. “Why would you do that?” or “What made you say that?” can sound a little judgmental, even when you don’t intend to criticize.
When it comes to advice, telling someone what you think they should do or how you think they should feel almost never helps. It’s generally best to keep your guidance to yourself unless they ask for advice.
If they do ask, try gentle suggestions instead of directives.
- “You should apologize and do something nice to make up for what happened.”
You might try:
- “I wonder if apologizing might be a good place to start? Maybe it would help to explain what you were thinking and then ask for their perspective.”
Good communication often begins with strong listening skills. You might be listening, but you’re not just listening — you’re actively participating in the conversation.
Developing communication skills such as active listening can help you build strong relationships and interact with others more successfully. If you struggle with active listening or connecting with people in other ways, a therapist can offer guidance on strengthening these skills.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.