How many times can you toss “damn, that’s crazy” into a conversation before the person talking to you realizes you’re straight up not listening to them? Answer: It’s probably best to not find out.

Listening may seem like a passive sport, but good listening — active listening — actually involves your full participation and effort. Why? Because good communication is a two-way street. Yes, it takes practice, but we promise it’s not as backbreaking as it sounds.

Active listening

Active listening is about combining engagement with empathy and support. It’s not just about being silent while the other person’s speaking. The “active” part involves using nonverbal cues to communicate to the speaker that you’re fully present, and specific validations to show that you received what was said.

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Keep reading to learn more about active listening and check out some effective ways to practice active listening techniques.

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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

Active listening is a super crucial communication skill, but that doesn’t mean it comes easily. As our phones are blowing up with texts, emails, and doomsday news updates, it can be hard to focus on the humans in front of us. So, there’s no shame in wanting to boost your listening game.

In fact, it’s actually important for the speaker as well as the listener that we give it our best shot.

To learn how to be better listeners, we chatted with Yvette Mendoza, a licensed professional counselor in Akron, Ohio. She loves this quote by author Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Mendoza says active listening is not only affirming, but also builds a bridge of respect and rapport. “You can gain a lot from listening to other’s perspectives.”

Mendoza says when active listening isn’t present, we’re basically communicating a lack of value in others’ thoughts. “We are all ‘learners’ — learning opportunities are everywhere. If one acts as a ‘knower,’ they’ll miss an opportunity to experience another’s perspective.”

Here are some ways to actively communicate value in others’ thoughts while listening.

1. Cut out distractions

Even for the best multitaskers, little activities during conversations — things like swiping through your Tinder matches or choosing the right caption for your selfie — can encourage distracted listening. This can give off a vibe that what the speaker is saying isn’t very important to you.

It’s best to ditch the distractions (read: put down the phone) so you can better tune in to what’s being shared with you.

2. Read body language

Body language may be the quickest, most accurate vibe check there is. Mendoza says active listening involves observing the speaker’s body language and seeing if it matches what they’re saying. For example, if they say they’re doing just fine but they’re slumped, frowning, or clenching their fists, it’s safe to say there’s more going on here.

As the listener, you gotta check your own body language too. Mendoza suggests having an open body posture, one that communicates that you’re ready to receive information. Here’s how you can do that:

  • face the speaker
  • lean in
  • maintain eye contact
  • keep your body light, relaxed
  • nod as they speak (where appropriate)

It also helps to “mirror” the speaker — smile if they’re smiling, shake your head if they’re shaking theirs, etc. This body language gives off a vibe that you’re on the same page and makes the speaker feel like you’re paying close attention.

Don’t do these:

  • sit in an uptight, stiff position with your shoulders turned away from the speaker
  • do not — we repeat — do not yawn
  • wiggle around, roll your eyes
  • look around the room, check your watch or phone, i.e., act bored

3. Avoid jumping in

As mid-90’s Gwen Stefani would suggest, don’t speak. At least, not until it’s time. Sure, we learned interrupting is rude when we were just kindergarteners but honestly, we could always use the reminder.

Sometimes it’s too damn tempting to jump in if we relate to or agree with what the speaker is sharing. But interrupting can totally f*ck with the speaker’s train of thought or give the impression that you think your story is better. So, unless you’re jumping in to ask a question or you need clarification on something, let them finish speaking before you respond.

4. Embrace silence

We tend to fear silence and avoid it at all costs. While we may think the speaker is expecting an instant reply, it’s usually better to pause first so we can offer a more thoughtful response. The speaker may even prefer this moment of reflection too. It means you’re carefully thinking about what they’ve said instead of just word-vomiting for the hell of it.

If you want to avoid the awkward silence, go ahead and tell them you’re just taking a second to think about what they’ve said.

5. Be a student

Mendoza recommends going into all conversations with a learner mindset — this means asking yourself, “what can I learn today?” This gives you the opportunity to see something to gain by actively listening instead of just anxiously awaiting your turn to speak.

You may be more motivated to actively listen knowing there’s something important, even if it’s just a little nugget of wisdom, somewhere in this conversation that you can walk away with.

6. Don’t be afraid of conflict

Learning to manage conflict is a wonderful skill to have. Mendoza explains that you start managing conflict by using active listening, which helps you identify the values of the communicator. “Many times you share similar values, they just may be expressed in different ways,” she says. Do your best to find those common values and see conflict as an opportunity to grow rather than an ugly outcome.

7. Hold the judgment, please

With all this listening you’re doing, you may eventually hear something that makes you cringe. Do your best to continue communicating support without coming across as super judgmental. For example, maybe your friend is beefing with their partner but from what you’ve heard, your friend isn’t so innocent either. Even if you feel you have all the facts, most scenarios are more complicated than we recognize at first.

So, if your buddy is definitely behaving like a butthead in their relationship, you can still actively listen and let them vent without pulling out your Judge Judy face. Plus, the odds are you’ll appreciate the same from them one day.

8. Be careful with advice

If the person you’re speaking with is asking for advice, it’s generally a good idea to offer soft suggestions instead of direct orders.

Avoid saying something like:

  • “You really f*cked up. You need to apologize and work hard to make things right.”

Consider something like:

  • “Hmm… let’s consider a good place to start with this. What about apologizing first? It could also be helpful to offer reasons behind what happened and then ask how they felt about everything…”

9. Ask the right questions

While nonverbals are great, we gotta make sure when it’s our turn to speak that we’re asking the right questions to show our support and further the conversation instead of shutting it down.

So instead of asking yes/no questions, ask some open-ended questions — ones about what they think or how they feel about the things they’ve shared.

Open-ended examples:

  • “So, what happened next?
  • “How did you feel after she said that?”

10. Validate, validate, validate

Sometimes after a stressful day of work, we just want to bitch it out, and not actually hear any advice. Whether the issue is big or small, it’s just nice to know someone cares that you had a sucky day (and it doesn’t hurt if they offer you ice cream either).

Here are some validating things you can say after someone has vented to you:

  • “I bet that was super frustrating.”
  • “That sounds stressful as hell.”
  • “I can totally see why that would make you feel over it.”

Note: Maybe give yourself a “damn, that’s crazy” limit of about two.

Even though some people hate having to repeat themselves, repeating (or relaying) what you heard back to the person is a big part of active listening.

Mendoza says we should do this to confirm that the thoughts were received and that they were received correctly. “Give them an opportunity to address any misunderstandings without either of you becoming defensive,” she adds. “Let them know you’re grateful to hear their thoughts.”

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers on commercial trucks that ask, “How am I doing?” Go ahead and copy that to see how well you’re listening, because check-ins also involve some quality control on your end. Just ask the person you’re communicating with how you’re doing to make sure your active listening skills are up to par. Be willing to hear any constructive feedback and see how you can apply it moving forward.

Does disagreement derail active listening?

As Mendoza points out, when we’re solely focused on our reply, we cannot actively listen. This tends to happen more during arguments than discussions, but it can occur in any scenario where you might not 100 percent agree with what’s being said. Of course, you might feel better if you can agree with everything. But the goal of active listening is to reach an understanding, not agreement. And it’s def not about convincing someone to accept your point of view. Basically, disagreements will happen, and we don’t have to sh*t a brick when they do.

“Disagreement is OK and acceptable, but more acceptable when you respect others’ perspectives,” Mendoza says. “That doesn’t mean that you agree with them, but it does mean you understand that because you may have been raised differently, you might not have the same beliefs [or viewpoints] — and that’s OK.”

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Just because you feel like you’re listening, it doesn’t always mean you’re actively listening. Active listening calls for receiving information (visually), processing it, and then giving back to the speaker respectfully.

Active listening isn’t always easy, but it’s beneficial for both the speaker and the listener. With some practice, you can cultivate stronger relationships by using some simple nonverbal cues and validation exercises. It’s all about shutting down distractions, being present, empathetic, and not being afraid of moments of silence or disagreement. You got this.