Active Listening

Now that we know the five levels of listening and the stages from passive interest to total empathy, how do we get there? Just as learning to read and write takes practice, so does the art of active listening. Simply hearing someone isn’t enough—you have to be very conscious and mindful of what skills you need to develop to be a great listener.
Active listening is one of the strongest relationship-building skills you can have. It establishes respect and concern for your partner’s viewpoints and makes it easier for you to process information that’s intricate and difficult to understand through passive listening. It also eases the communication process: active listening helps you get better informed on what the other person’s needs are and therefore makes you less anxious and more open with your responses.

Listening involves more than your sense of hearing or sustaining eye contact. Your brain needs to compute several other aspects as well. In addition to understanding the speaker, you need to take other invisible factors into account: what their intentions might be, the context of the conversation, and even nonverbal signals and variations that you can’t transcribe. At the same time, we have to push our ego out of the way so we can truly access what the other person is saying. We call this process “active” listening because it engages so many parts of our mind and makes us do something to understand what’s being communicated.

Therapists (good ones, at least) are excellent models of how to be an active listener. They listen to their clients with a clear purpose. If there’s something they’re hearing that they’re not 100% sure about, they encourage their clients to be clear and deliberate. They try to restate their patients’ statements and ask them to elaborate on what they mean. Above all, they try to make their clients feel calm and safe about communicating through contemplation, clear body language, and a spirit of empathy.
Active listening involves a few essential elements that you can start concentrating on almost immediately.
Comprehending. The first step in active listening is, of course, understanding what the other person is saying in the first place. If the person who’s talking to us is speaking the same language as we normally do, this process is fairly automatic. But there are other potential blocks—for example, if the person uses a lot of jargon or slang that we don’t know or if there are differences in generation, social standing, or culture that we just don’t know enough about.
A great thing to ask if we’re not understanding what someone’s saying is “Can you explain it to me as if I were five years old?” A five-year-old kid knows enough words to hold a conversation but needs to have relatively complex situations described to them in a very patient, deliberate way using the words that they already know. Especially if you think the other person fears appearing condescending or patronizing to you, asking them to describe something as if you were, let’s say, far younger than your actual age, can make them feel a little more at ease.
Other statements asking for help comprehending include the following:
“What happened?”
“Tell me your story.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me more.”
Retaining. More than just remembering what you just heard, retaining information is understanding what the speaker is trying to say so we can give back a suitable reply.
Retaining isn’t quite as simple as accurate recall. When we’re listening to someone, we tend to retain only the details that strike us more personally or in ways that we’re most used to retaining information. For example, if someone’s telling us about a date they went on, we might be the kind that remembers the physical details of the event (what restaurant they went to, what movie they saw, what they were wearing). Or we might recall some more general narrative about the date as a whole (what personality the other person had, what the date “felt like,” how it compared to other dates in the past).
We’re also inclined to retain “data” that would be more likely to elicit a response from us. In conversation we generally look for openings for us to say something to “get our two cents in.” This is normal, but it’s not entirely conducive to active listening. To properly retain what our conversation partner is telling us, we have to put our egos away and focus squarely on the other person’s words. We can’t act like we know the next thing they’re going to say—we have to let them say it to complete their thoughts.
Retaining is also held back by a variety of things, including distractions, cognitive bias, or memory-related problems. To ensure you’re getting all the relevant information you need, you could ask,
“What does that mean to you?”
“How did that make you feel?”
“What was your reaction?”
Responding. Active listening requires an effort to form a knowing and proper response—otherwise, the speaker might feel like they’re talking to a brick wall. An effective response will demonstrate our concern for what they’re talking about. You’re listening, comprehending, and retaining already; a quality response will prove that you understand everything they’ve said and picked up on their nonverbal communication.
Like retaining, it’s important that a response isn’t tinted with our own ego or ideas. You’re trying to get a sense of the other person’s feelings and opinions without biases you’ve developed:
Speaker A: And that’s why I don’t like going to dinner parties.
Respondent B: That sounds insane! Were you flustered when that odd man jumped out of the cake?
Speaker A: Not flustered so much as disappointed. I expected something a little more grown-up from the Temperance League.
Respondent B: It must have tried your patience. Did it?
Speaker A: A little bit. But more than anything else, it just proved that I have to start putting some restrictions on the entertainment budget.
Responses in active listening should be reflective of what the speaker has said. They should display a deep interest in your partner’s thoughts and feelings. Rather than shaping our own opinions and viewpoints, good responses in active listening help both parties make their own self-discoveries.
In issuing a quality response, try to reply to your partner’s thoughts and feelings. You can do this by restating what they’ve said in your own words. Stay within their standpoint when you respond; introducing a suggestion or idea that doesn’t have anything to do with their immediate situation could be too jarring or distracting. Don’t offer a contradictory or conflicting opinion until you have fully understood, as much as you can, everything your partner is conveying to you. And even then, try to keep strong judgments tamped down.
Here are some positive responses in active listening:
“I’m intrigued by your story.”
“That sounds like a _ situation.”
“I can see how you’d feel that way.”
“I get the sense that you feel something has to change—what would you like to see happen?”
“Do you feel anxious about this situation?”
The general goal of active listening is to fully grasp the viewpoint or life experience of the person who’s speaking to you and for you to absorb that information in a meaningful way that could spur you to new knowledge and understanding. To accomplish the goals of comprehending, retaining, and responding, you can employ a few or more of these techniques:
Restating. Paraphrasing your partner’s sentiments in your own words is an exceptional way to facilitate your comprehension. It’s important not to simply repeat what they said back to them like a parrot, but rather to show that you’ve caught the essence of what they were saying.
Them: That situation confused and scared me.
You: It must have felt like a dangerous moment—it must have been hard to know what to do.
Reflecting. An alternative way of restating is to frame your reply along the lines of emotions rather than events or story points. Reflecting gives the speaker’s story a deeper level that you can prove you have a handle on.
Them: So in the end, my dad said he knew all along I wouldn’t get into that college.
You: That’s terrible. That sounds like a cruel kind of rejection.
Summarizing. Try to verbally round up the details of a speaker’s story into a concise form that displays that you get the whole picture.
You: So the baker got your order wrong, the dinner was burned, and they sent a hypnotist instead of a clown. Man, if that were my kid’s birthday party, I’d feel ticked off!
Label emotions. Often, a speaker will just get lost in the practical and physical details of what they’re relating to you. As sensitively as possible, try to identify the emotions they haven’t been able to specifically verbalize yet.
Them: Finally my boss apologized for overlooking my work and assured me that he was going to pay more attention from now own.
You: Wow, I’m guessing you feel pretty relieved and vindicated by that—not to mention a little cocky.
Probing. Without sounding like an invasive interrogator, try to ask leading questions that will elicit a deeper level of understanding and meaning from the person you’re speaking with. Most people enjoy being asked questions that are well-formed and not too presumptuous.
You: What did it feel like when that woman berated your kid at the supermarket? How did you really want to respond?
Silence. Frequently there’s more to be said by a well-placed silence than by filling up the space with additional verbiage. Silence can give every participant a miniature bit of time to gather themselves and their thoughts. It could also help reduce the tension that could arise from a tense or fruitless interaction.
Them: And that’s when I decided skydiving wasn’t my thing, especially when it’s work-related.
Not sermonizing, giving unsolicited advice, or glibly reassuring. Nobody likes to be put on a level secondary to someone else, and in communication, such a feeling might make the speaker feel like shutting down further discussion.
Them: And worst of all, he cannot remember to put the toilet seat down.
Sermonizing you: You should never have let him in your bathroom in the first place.
Unsolicited advising you: You should barricade the bathroom until he agrees to your demands.
Glibly reassuring you: Don’t worry about it! Tomorrow’s another lovely day full of wonderful possibilities.
Asking leading and open-ended questions. To show that you’re invested in your partner’s well-being, ask some nonbinary questions about their experience. These questions show that you’re ready to get input and that you’re interested in more than just the data or facts of a certain situation.
Them: So I decided, after a couple hundred dollars later, perhaps parallel parking was something we were going to have to work a little harder on.
You: How does that make you feel? What are your plans for learning? Where do you plan on doing it? What do you hope comes out of it?
Active listening takes a lot of patient work and practice and can even be challenging for people who are good at it. But it pays off in creating an atmosphere of true comprehension, easier information flow, and increased respect for all parties. It’s communication at its highest.

Validate Me

Validation is the verbal affirmation and acceptance of the emotions and viewpoints of someone we’re communicating with. For our purposes, it’s truly an extension of deep listening and being mindful of both the conversation and the meta-conversation that is occurring in front of us.
Normal listening takes care of the conscious conversation level, but validation satisfies an emotional need (the meta-conversation) that is presented any time anyone opens their mouth.
At first glance, validation might seem like a fairly simple concept of nodding and saying yes when people want you to, but even though it sounds relatively uncomplicated, there are right and wrong ways to validate.
Validation is one of the more powerful give-and-take practices of communication because it establishes respect between two people, old friend or stranger. Shutting down someone’s feelings—even if they’re repellant to us—effectively closes those floodgates off and isolates both sides of the exchange, putting the relationship at risk.
Genuine validation, on the other hand, helps everybody in the communication process score a win. The receiver gets a confirmation of their humanity, but the giver also enriches their own stature and enhances their self-worth. Generosity, trust, and eagerness to confide emerge, and communication rarely goes wrong when all those elements are working.
Studies summarized in a 2010 article from the University of Rochester highlighted the positive and subtle effects the act of validation has in a successful relationship. It’s not just a way of paying attention to people or showing respect for people’s wishes. That is the lowest-hanging fruit that needs to be picked, but true validation goes far deeper in making people feel embraced and heard.
In one study, a selection of participants was instructed to concentrate on the best experience they’d had in the previous three years. Then they were matched with another person and encouraged to tell them about that experience. Unbeknownst to them, that other person was not a subject in the study but someone (a “confederate,” as the researchers put it) who’d been trained to respond in a favorable way to their experience.
Other participants in the study were matched with confederates under the pretense that they too were just participants in the study. Instead of talking about their positive experience, though, they participated in a “fun” activity that involved drawing.
The feedback from the respondents after the third experiment showed an interesting split. Subjects who took part in the fun activity reported liking their partners more and that they’d enjoyed their time with them more than those who’d only spoken with them. But those who had discussed their experience and gotten a supportive response reported that they trusted the other person more and that they were more likely to be open with their private thoughts and feelings with those confederates.
These affirmations caused test subjects to feel even better about their positive experiences. They felt more assured about the daily, basic structures of their lives and generated a large amount of goodwill in return. They got another level of satisfaction and value on top of the original experience—all from a somewhat simple act of validation.
It’s important to note that the positive events the subjects were talking about were not all major milestones that are commonly validated on a mass level—positive life-changers like graduation, marriage, or childbirth. Most of them were simply happy experiences or interactions, things that happen more commonly. But the validation of these smaller events was just as significant to the subjects, if not more. Getting supportive remarks about them fostered conditions of trust and confidence, not to mention generosity in return.

Validation Basics

Any verbal interaction looks simple on paper, but sometimes we can get tripped up on execution. Validation is no different: there are components one must include to make it felt. When someone confides in us or expresses a certain immediate emotion, they’re looking to have that emotion processed and accepted by whomever they’re talking with. That doesn’t always happen.
There are two main components of an act of validation that define its success.
Identifying the emotion. While recognizing our own emotions is a crucial part of our personal mental health, being able to do so with someone else is a big plus in our relationship and social health. Being able to verbalize our interpretation of our partner’s emotions—before they have to come right out and say “I’m angry” or “I’m sad”—opens the door to a positive validation. It shows that we’re keyed in on what they’re communicating, that we’re really listening and not just hearing.
Justifying the emotion. Once we’ve identified what our communication partner is feeling, the next step is proclaiming it as a proper—or at least very understandable—emotional reaction: “Why, if I was in your shoes, I’d feel the same way too!” This establishes a sense of commonality, that our partner’s sentiments are exactly what rational people would feel under the circumstances. It communicates that you are feeling the same emotion they are and emphasizes that the way they feel and think is justified.
Justifying your partner’s feelings is a much more important component than instantly offering advice on what to do. They want to feel that you empathize with their plight first, before hearing what corrective measures they should take. Even well-intentioned or accurate advice would simply infer that they’ve been doing something wrong or that their emotional status is primarily their fault. Before giving advice, we need to connect with them on a sympathetic, emotional level. That will make working through a solution much easier and more supportive later. Oftentimes the act of validation, not advice, is really what people are seeking in an interaction. This tells us emotional support is more important than having a to-do list to fix someone’s circumstances or feelings; indeed, feeling better about something is far more important than knowing what to do about it.
How do these two parts work in real communication? Let’s first imagine a scenario that doesn’t work:
Partner 1: “I can’t believe this! I’m getting heat at work for something my boss told me to do! I knew it was a bad idea, I protested it, they forced me to do it, it messed things up royally, and now my boss told me I’d have to work overtime this weekend to put everything back the way it was!”
Partner 2: “I told you that place was a disaster before you took the job. You shouldn’t be surprised this is happening.”
Partner 1: “Gee, thanks for making me feel worse.”
Partner 2: “I’m not the one who wanted to go into the funeral home business. Don’t look at me. Why don’t you look for another job?”
What’s wrong with Partner 2’s response? Just about everything. Partner 1 was upset at what they perceived as an unfair situation. They felt upset that they weren’t taken seriously at work and then got shafted when things went wrong. Partner 2 is essentially doing the exact same thing. By reminding Partner 1 that “I told you so,” Partner 2 isn’t taking their feelings seriously either. They set up the judgment that they made the wrong choice to begin with and shouldn’t feel upset because, essentially, they made their bed and have to lie in it.
This exchange is much more on the mark:
Partner 1: “I can’t believe this! I’m getting heat at work for something my boss told me to do! I knew it was a bad idea, I protested it, they forced me to do it, it messed things up royally, and now my boss told me I’d have to work overtime this weekend to put everything back the way it was!”
Partner 2: “Did they really do that? No! That’s infuriating! I’d be livid about it too.”
Partner 1: “I just feel like I don’t have any control over my own destiny at that place.”
Partner 2: “That must be really disheartening. I don’t see how anyone would feel otherwise under such conditions, especially at a funeral home.”
In that exchange, Partner 2 is much better. They’ve identified the emotion Partner 1 is feeling, namely fury (“That’s infuriating!”). They then established the emotion as proper or understandable and exactly the way people would feel in that situation (“I’d be livid about it too”). Partner 2 then repeats the process in the last statement: Partner 1 feels “disheartened,” and anyone in those circumstances would feel and act the same.
Note that in the second exchange Partner 2 does not try to fix the problem or even necessarily take deliberate steps to make Partner 1 feel that much better. Partner 1 needs to feel enraged at the moment; it’s a justifiable emotion. If Partner 2 had tried to force a solution by giving advice or suggesting something else, it would have interrupted Partner 1’s emotional process. It would have been an effort to stop Partner 1 from feeling how they’re entirely entitled to feel.
What’s more important is that Partner 1 feel validated in their response, that they’re understood and empathized with. That reinforces the quality of their communication. If there happens to be a way Partner 2 can effectively offer help or work through a solution later, great. But without a sense that the partner’s feelings are valid, that effort won’t amount to much. Even if you know what must be done and think someone is idiotic for engaging in self-defeating behaviors, think of it this way: they can’t understand it unless they hear themselves say it. So you must humor them and engage in a certain degree of their drama to successfully validate and get them to their end goals of emotional support and perhaps even a solution.