Wisdom//

3 Active Strategies for Engaged Listening

Connecting with friends and peers doesn't have to be challenging.

Juj Winn/Getty Images
Juj Winn/Getty Images

By Cedar Barstow, MEd, CHT

Can you recall an experience of being in a conversation with a friend or at work where people were talking “over” each other? Interesting things might have been said, but you may not have been able to follow the conversation or truly connect with anyone. Was that frustrating? Discouraging? Or what about an experience where someone was asking one question after another, just talking non-stop, and there was no mutual dialogue. How did this feel? Boring? Flat? Tiring?

Nearly all of us may have had the experience where we have been talking, and you can tell the other person is just waiting for us to finish so they can jump in with their story. Did you really feel heard?

When we are not connected in conversation, we can’t truly be in relationship with the person we are talking to. Active listening is about creating that connection. With active listening, conversation can be inspiring, creative, nourishing, and productive.

How Can Active and Engaged Listening Help?

Being actively engaged is both an art and a skill. By remembering that power is the ability to have an effect or to have influence, you can create many choice points in a conversation to use your power to actively engage and influence how the conversation goes. By not using your power to positively influence a conversation, you might be using it to create barriers in your relationships. Often, we unconsciously misuse our power by under-using it. We let things go rather than having the courage to shift communication to be deeper or broader, or simply to help the talk be more fun and interesting.

With active listening, conversation can be inspiring, creative, nourishing, and productive.

Here are some experiments you could try to see how engaged and relationship-oriented you are in your conversations. These all are practices for engaging in active listening.

Active Listening: Demonstrate That You Understand

We want to be understood. We want to know we are being listened to. Demonstrating understanding is not as difficult or complicated as it might seem, and you have probably done it before. You don’t have to repeat every word that was said. Simple phrases like “Got it” or “That sounds exciting” could be all that’s needed. And magically, feeling listened to will encourage the person to go on. This is the first step of active listening. Whether you are in a leadership role or trying to create a conversation with someone you care about, it is good to make sure you are at least practicing this step.

If you want to go to the next level where you are involved in a give-and-take conversation that actively grows the relationship on both sides, here’s some more guidance. This step, beyond active listening, we call engaged listening.

Engaged listening uses three strategies:

1. Connecting Comments

A connecting comment begins with making a link between what the other person is saying and your own experience.

For example: “My version of what you are saying is _________,” or “You are speaking of _________. That makes me think of _________.”

Making a connecting comment does double duty. It demonstrates that you understand and it offers you a way to include yourself and focus on something that is also of interest to you.

2. Curiosity

When making a connecting comment, you want to be guided by something about what the person is saying or how you are experiencing them that interests you or that you are curious about. Here’s where you can guide the conversation in a desired direction.

For example: “I’m really curious about what got you interested in _________. Could you tell me more?” Or, “I recently had a similar experience, and it made me curious about _________.”

Demonstrating understanding is not as difficult or complicated as it might seem, and you have probably done it before.

3. Deepening Questions

These are questions that take the conversation deeper and could also be called open-ended questions. Keep in mind questions that can be answered simply by yes or no, or even a few words, generally don’t take you deeper or to a new place. Questions that ask a person to expand on their experience by not leading to a choice (yes or no) will do wonders to keep a conversation from dead-ending. An easy way to try this would be to use questions that start with “how” or “why.”

You can sense that engaged listening is happening when people are able to demonstrate listening to each other through connecting their experience, bringing themselves into the talk with curiosity, and exploring new ideas through deepening questions.

Here are a few examples:

At Work

“Is your project done yet?”—“No.”

  • Impact: Dead-end and person may feel criticized.
  • Instead: “How is your project going?”—“It’s going pretty well.”

“Are there any obstacles?”—“ No.”

  • Impact: Dead-end and person may feel criticized.
  • Instead: “I’m curious about what obstacles you are encountering.”

At a Party

“Who do you know here?”—“Nancy and Jim.”

  • Impact: New question is needed immediately.
  • Instead: How do you know people here?” This opens an opportunity to tell about how you know people at the party. It allows for an answer such as, I don’t know them through the singing group, I know them through the swim club.” 

Where did you grow up? “Minnesota.”—(No pause.) “I saw a good movie this week.”

  • Impact: The person doesn’t feel heard. There is no connecting comment that includes them in how the movie you mention is related to where they grew up. You’ll keep talking, but they won’t likely keep listening.
  • Instead: “Where did you grow up?”—“Minnesota.”—”Minnesota, eh? You know, that makes me think of a good movie I saw where one of the scenes was in Minnesota. What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently? I really like movies.” You might not have anything to talk about regarding Minnesota, so you can draw the conversation to something that could interest both of you.

“Do you do any kind of exercise?”—“Yes.”

  • Impact: Dead-end through a yes or no question.
  • Instead: “What kind of exercise is most satisfying to you?”—“Swimming.” Then, follow with an interest of yours: “I’ve really been searching for the right kind of exercise for me. What led you to swimming?”

The keys for engaged listening, as a right use of your power and influence, are to demonstrate you understand, guide the conversation toward a topic that is interesting to you both, make connecting comments that create links between you, and ask “how” or “why” questions to open up new territory. In turn, this leads to healthier and more connected relationships. In addition, you may feel more interested in others and more confident in your ability to use your power toward increased well-being.

If communication issues are negatively impacting your day-to-day life or ability to function, there is help. Search for a therapist in your area who can help you learn and practice strategies to help you connect with others.

© Copyright 2019 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

Originally published on GoodTherapy.org.

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