How to Be an Active Listener and Build Stronger Relationships

Simple Takeaway:

Positive listening builds influence and relationships. To be a better active listener: eliminate distractions, emote nonverbally, summarize, and ask questions. Most importantly, actually care more about what they’re saying than you do about being heard.

Almost everyone thinks they’re a good listener (96% of people, according to one study). But research has shown that people only retain about half of what they’re told.

When we half-way listen to what someone is saying, we devalue our relationship with them.

One study found that active listening positively impacts the way people perceive you. The researchers said, “the emotional appraisal of an experience is positively changed in response to perceiving active listening by another.”

Another study found that active listening made people feel more understood than when they were given unsolicited advice or simple cues like head nods, “I see,” “OK,” “That makes sense,” and so on.

Here’s what research says about the power of feeling heard in a work setting:

  • Highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace (92%) than highly disengaged employees (just 30%).
  • 74% of employees report they are more effective at their job when they feel heard.
  • 88% of employees whose companies financially outperform others in their industry feel heard compared to 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies.

We all want to be heard.

Whenever we feel that someone is actively engaging in listening to what we’re saying, we feel gravitational pull towards that person.

They become more likable and we enjoy being around them more.

The reason is, they make us feel like we belong. And it’s all because they are simply listening.

So how can you be a better active listener?

Here are a few ways to engage in active listening:

Actually care.

Humans have an innate ability to sense when a person has hidden motives.

According to Oriel FeldmanHall, a researcher and professor at Brown University, “People have this amazing ability to figure out another person’s motives, such as greed and risk aversion.”

There’s just something “off” about people who butter you up just before trying to sell you on something. You can see it coming a mile away.

The same is true in relationships.

All the influence hacks in the world won’t help if you’re more interested in your own opinion than collectively solving problems.

Go to a singular focus.

Multi-tasking kills active listening.

There’s a one-track path to excellence. Studies have shown over and over again that trying to do two complex, focus-demanding tasks at the same time only diminishes your effectiveness in both tasks.

Fully commit your attention to listening.

Use body language and nonverbal interest.

    Body language speaks volumes.

    Research has shown that a person’s body language alone has the power to alter the moods and opinions of others. In other words, you can literally set the tone in the room.

    In one study, a person who was emotionally “expressive” – meaning they conveyed emotions through body language – was put in a room with two other people who were less expressive with body language.

    They found that the mood of the person with stronger body language actually altered the moods of the other two people in the room.

    Eye contact, nodding, facial expressions, leaning forward – these are all natural indicators of a person who is engaged. And they have a huge impact on conversations and relationships.

    Don’t fake it, because that comes a cross as disingenuous. But become aware of your body language and use it appropriately.

    Paraphrase and summarize.

    Try to distill down what they’re saying to a key takeaway. 

    People don’t intentionally try to bore you. They say unnecessary details so they can work through their thoughts. Good listeners sift through the details and help them find what it is they’re actually saying.

    When you periodically summarize what they said (without being weird about it), you gain clarity and they feel heard.

    Clarity is key to active listening because we check out when we feel incapable of processing all that’s being said.

    To keep yourself from getting overwhelmed, keep mentally coming back to the key takeaways.

    Encourage elaboration.

    Commit to the simple yet powerful act of asking more questions.

    Questions are perhaps the most effective influence-building tools we have. People love being asked questions. It makes them feel valued when someone cares enough to want to hear what they have to offer.

    When you ask questions, it gets you involved in the conversation in a productive way without you having to be an expert on the topic.

    Not only do questions keep the conversation going, but genuine questions make people feel like they’re heard and cared about.

    Simply putting yourself in this mindset will have you genuinely listening more as you try to go deeper into the conversation.

    When in doubt, care.

    Even if what they’re saying isn’t interesting to you, check your ego and put on a little empathy.

    Empathy goes a long way when it comes to listening. If empathy alone was our guiding star in relationships, we wouldn’t have nearly as many issues.

    So, while these tips will definitely help, they mean nothing without empathy.

    Care, focus, emote nonverbally, paraphrase, and ask questions. But more than anything, be empathetic.