Think about the last time someone listened to you. Really listened to you, without interrupting, or waiting for their turn to speak. How did it feel?
When someone takes time to really listen, it is an extraordinary gift. And yet, active listening, or deep listening, is rarely practiced in our busy lives. It’s easier to switch off, or to rush onto the next thing, than to really listen.
So, why should we take the time to cultivate deep listening?
Giving someone your full attention is a great sign of respect. It helps reinforce the connection between you, enriches your understanding of that person, and drives empathy. When we don’t listen deeply and actively, we make ourselves more isolated: marooned in our own ideas and prejudices, with a greatly reduced scope for learning and developing understanding.
It might sound obvious, but listening also drives greater clarity and transfer of information! Investing more often in listening the first time, especially at work, helps everyone be more efficient in the long run. As we get busier, it’s tempting to multitask – but this makes active listening so much harder. Most likely, it makes it impossible – and far from getting things done more efficiently, multitasking slows everything down. Taking a moment to stop what you’re doing and fully focus your attention on the person speaking is so simple – and yet it can be transformative, for everyone involved.
There’s a reason we call it ‘active listening’. If you feel like you’re doing nothing, passively sitting in silence when you’re listening, this is far from active – but it’s also hard to resist making interruptions, especially when they feel positive, like an offer of common ground. Truly active listening is reflective – taking in everything the person is saying to you, with the possibility of reflecting it back to them, but without interrupting. It requires quite a lot of concentration to do properly.
Active listening techniques have profound consequences in the real world. They are used in conflict resolution and peace negotiations on a global scale: from South Africa to the Gaza strip. On a more individual level, relationships therapists use active listening to help heal trauma in couples and families. It’s also used in restorative justice settings to support survivors of abuse.
Cultivating patience and suspending judgement are essential tools for the active listener. It’s said that it is impossible to exist in a state of wonder and a state of judgement at the same time. Resisting the urge to judge is vital in fully inhabited deep listening. Listening actively validates the speaker, and helps embolden them to speak for longer, and more fully. It’s a profound way to strengthen existing relationships as well as new bonds.
An essential tool in conflict resolution, deep listening is a short cut to empathy. The more empathetic we are, the stronger our relationships, our connections, and our understanding of others – even (or especially) when we disagree.
As we enter an ever more polarising world, divided by politics and bisected by algorithms on social media, the skill of listening is more urgent and more powerful than ever. Active listening is the gift you can give anyone. It will make them feel truly heard – and you, the listener, feel deeply connected.