Mastering Active Listening Could Make All The Difference For Your Relationships

Have you ever found yourself conversing with a friend, colleague, relative, or significant other, but mid-conversation, you stop listening to them for a moment? When you dial back into the conversation, you completely missed the vital part of their story. So, you scramble through your brain to figure out what they said if they ask for your opinion, but you realize you have no idea and try to play it off. Sometimes you can get away with them not realizing you weren't listening, but other times, they catch you not red-handed. While you might have been paying attention, you weren't actively listening. When you're actively listening, you're fully engaged in a conversation, meaning you're making eye contact, asking open-ended questions, understanding the meaning behind the spoken words, using non-verbal cues, etc., which is essential in any relationship.


Listening to your partner when they talk to you gives them a sense of security and makes them feel valuable, like what they say really matters to you. Passive listening is when you hear your partner talk, but you don't respond to them or provide hints that you're engaged in the conversation. It makes your significant other feel ignored, unimportant, and unloved, so active listening is vital — and improves relationships.

Benefits of active listening

Being available to someone when they need someone to listen to them is very different than being there for someone to who you simply offer advice when they vent to you about something personal. Active listening isn't about giving your opinion or being biased toward what your friend or partner is telling you. Instead, it's about empathizing with them and allowing them to rant without any response. It can be challenging not offering any advice when someone is going through a difficult time, so it's essential to listen and ask them if they want advice or someone to listen to them.


When genuinely actively listening, you create a stronger bond. Avoid making the conversation about you and your experiences. While it feels like you're empathizing with someone when you've gone through similar situations, sometimes the person doesn't want to hear your experience; they just want to be heard. It's best to put your feelings and thoughts aside and focus on the conversation at hand. You'll create a sense of trust, openness, and connection with your friend, partner, or relative. They'll know they can go to you when they need to get something off their chest without worrying about being interrupted or pushed aside.

How to actively listen

We mentioned a few ways to practice being a better active listener. For example, making eye contact with your partner, friend, or relative when they're talking shows them that you're focusing on what they're saying. The limbic mirror system is activated, meaning the brain's neurotransmitters' energy in your partner will reflect in yours when you're making eye contact (via the National Library of Medicine). You'll feel the same emotions. While eye contact can be awkward and intimidating at first, you'll see it's more manageable over time since you'll become more comfortable with your partner.


Another example: using non-verbal cues and noticing your friend's non-verbal cues. If you're not in a position where you can make eye contact, then showing non-verbal cues will let them know you're listening and help keep you engaged. Nodding your head, squeezing your partner's hand, or saying a couple of "mhm's" or "yeah's" lets them know they're not talking to themselves.

Commenting, agreeing, or paraphrasing in response to your partner turns non-verbal cues into verbal cues that make them aware that you're actively listening. Asking them open-ended questions furthers the conversation; even requesting clarification shows you were really listening. Even though you're not listening to respond, it's essential to remember a few key points to touch on when it's your turn to talk, whether it's something you need clarification on or if you're paraphrasing.


Take small steps to improve your listening skills

Your active listening skills won't improve unless you practice them. However, remembering the different ways you're supposed actively listen won't help. You won't be paying any attention when thinking about keeping up good eye contact, non-verbal cues, remembering key points, etc. So, taking small steps to improve your listening skills will help you master active listening. For example, remove all distractions, such as television, radio, or phone noises. It's hard to focus when your favorite song is playing and you're tuning out the person you're talking with to listen to the lyrics. Instead, turn off all distractions, or play instrumental music that can get lost in the background.


Practice eye contact with everyone regardless of how long the conversation runs. Make eye contact with the grocery clerk, the barista, or other friends. You'll feel more comfortable holding lengthy conversations with your relatives or significant other while holding eye contact.

On the other hand, practicing empathy can significantly improve your listening skills because it compels you to concentrate more on what they're telling you. When someone shares something sad that happened to them, try to put yourself in their situation and feel what they're feeling. You'll be able to ask meaningful questions and delve into their feelings. Or, if your partner imparts exciting news, you can give them the same happy energy they're radiating when they tell you the news.


Be honest about your needs

Sometimes you lack the energy or mental space to hold a conversation, and that's okay. Sitting in silence with your friend or partner might be enough for you at the moment. However, shutting down or rudely telling them you don't want to talk anymore leads to bigger problems. Instead, be open and honest, especially with your significant other. Being honest rates as an essential factor in a relationship. Well-being and relationship coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, claims, "We depend on our partner being our port in the storm, a person who we can trust with our thoughts, feelings, and heart," per mbg relationships.


Honesty strengthens any relationship, so it's best to communicate your needs when experiencing something. If you want to get something off your mind, but your friend has been discussing their problems for hours, kindly redirect the conversation to yourself. Ask them what you can do to help their situation. If their response includes you helping them, then offer to help. You'll be able to gear towards a new topic, which allows you to open up and talk about your feelings. However, always ask if they're in the right headspace to listen to you because you don't want them to passively listen while they continue to think about their issues.

Active listening takes a lot of work

Active listening is a lot of work and takes a lot of effort. Be patient with yourself and the people you're talking to because difficult conversations can affect your emotional and mental well-being. Tell your friend or relative if you feel it's best to save the conversation for another time. Explain what you're feeling and why resuming the conversation later will be better; you'll be more engaged in what they say. Creator of Tea and Empathy workshops, Kate McCombs, states, "I think it's important to acknowledge that it would be an unsustainable level of emotional labor to require people to actively listen all the time," per Insider.


You can only take so much during a long, heavy conversation before you start feeling low energy. Taking breaks between conversations is sometimes needed to prevent arguments, especially if they notice you have stopped listening. "I think it's helpful in interpersonal relationships, particularly romantic relationships, to clarify when you'd like active listening," claims McCombs. When you're ready to continue the conversation, tell them it's time to talk again, and you'll notice how more focused you are the second time around.