How active listening can improve your relationships – at work and home

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Do your colleagues interrupt you or seem distracted when you’re talking? It’s likely they are bad listeners. While some people are stuck in their ways, practicing active listening can improve your listening skills as well as skills of those around you.

WellTuned spoke with Robin Cruise, a social worker and associate project manager with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee’s behavioral health programs, about the role of active listening in a healthy workplace and how you can embrace this communication skill.

What is active listening?

Robin Cruise: The key is to active listening is engagement. If you’re just listening, you’re not necessarily engaging with the other person. But with active listening, you’re responding to the other person. You’re fully involved.

Active listening in the workplace improves communication and relationships. When you actively listen to your coworkers, they feel heard and valued. You are showing them that you are truly paying attention to them and care about their concerns, which can build morale. It also improves workplace productivity and employee loyalty.

People aren’t as good at listening as they think. The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to improve.

How can we listen actively?

Robin Cruise: The word “active” implies that you are taking some sort of action. Rather than sitting back and just hearing what they have to say, you interact with them. Rather than interrupting them so that you can talk, maintain what the United States Institute of Peace calls an “interested silence.”  Rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next, deliberately pay attention to what they say with their words and what they say with their body language.

6 steps to becoming a more active listener

1. Restate what the speaker said

“What I hear you saying is…” is a good way to restate what they say in your own words back to them. This lets them know that you’ve heard them accurately. This also gives the speaker the chance to correct any misinterpretations.

2. Use non-verbal cues

You can convey a lot by how you use your body when you’re listening to someone.  You can make eye contact with the speaker. You can smile. You can nod your head and lean toward them. All of this can tell the speaker that you care about what they’re saying.

3. Ask questions

Another key component of active listening is asking questions, specifically open-ended questions. You can ask the other person to elaborate upon their feelings, too. This will reassure the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say and want to know more.

4. Pay attention to the speaker’s body language

You can also learn a lot about what’s important to the speaker by watching their body language. What kind of posture do they have when they’re speaking? Are they looking directly at you? Are they waving their hands or pointing their fingers? You might also pay attention to their facial expressions. Taking in all these cues helps you better understand what they are trying to say.

5. Listen to the other person’s voice

As the other person is speaking to you, listen to their tone of voice. Do they sound agitated or upset? Are they talking really fast? They may be nervous or anxious. You may be able to help them feel more at ease by smiling and acting relaxed.

6. Allow silence to work for you

Don’t jump in too soon. Let the other person speak—and finish speaking—without interrupting them. You can still convey that you’re interested in what they’re saying.

How do we know it works?

Robin Cruise: A major goal of active learning is to create a safe space, where people know they can speak freely. At the end of a conversation, share a quick summary of what you both said with the other person. It’s important to avoid criticism and to remain open and non-judgmental. Ultimately, you’ll create a culture of mutual respect.

Take your new skills home with you

Robin Cruise: When we practice skills like active listening, we learn to stay in tune with how we relate to others, our relationships improve, and we get better outcomes in whatever we try to accomplish.

Active listening isn’t just helpful in the workplace. It can help build better connections in all our relationships, including our relationships with family members and friends. And, healthy, connected relationships are absolutely essential to our well-being.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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