We can all think of situations where we found it hard to talk about something that was troubling us. Difficult, painful or embarrassing situations which we find almost impossible to speak to someone else about. Imagine you’ve got a close friend who needs to get something difficult off their chest. How do you get them to open up?
Active listening is a way of listening which helps people talk through their problems, no matter how difficult they find it to put into words. It sounds a strange idea. We assume that when we listen, we don’t actually do anything. Well, not necessarily
Nobody expects you to know the answers. Not knowing the answers doesn’t mean you’re not helping. You can really help by being an active listener.
With active listening, although you do some talking, you’re really just acting as a sounding board. What you say doesn’t influence what the other person has to say. It just helps them to talk. All too often, we say things which bring conversations to a halt, like ‘I know just how you feel’ or ‘Try not to worry about it.’ Although they’re meant well, they don’t encourage the person you’re speaking with to continue talking. They tend to wrap up what the other person was just saying instead. With active listening, you can avoid this.
How to be an active listener
Rather than asking questions which only require a yes or no answer, try to ask open questions. For example, instead of saying ‘Has this been going on for a long time?’ try asking ‘How long has this been going on?’ That way, instead of closing the conversation down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, you open it out and encourage the other person to keep talking.
It helps to show that you’ve listened to, and understood, what’s been said. You can do this by summarising. For example, ‘So you’re being treated terribly by your partner, but you still love them?’
Repeating back a word or phrase can encourage people to go on. If someone says ‘So it’s been really difficult recently’, you can keep the conversation going by simply reflecting on this and saying, ‘It sounds like it’s been really difficult for you.’
We all skirt around or gloss over the most difficult things. If we can avoid saying them, we will. If the person you’re speaking with glosses over an important point, try saying ‘Tell me more about….’ Or ‘….sounds a difficult area for you.’ This can help them clarify the points, not only for you, but for themselves.
You don’t have to be completely neutral. If whoever you’re talking with has been having an absolutely dreadful time, some sympathy and understanding is vital. ‘That must have been difficult’ or ‘You’ve had an awful time’ can be helpful things to say.
All of this sounds quite simple. And it is. All you’re doing is listening, and from time to time giving responses which encourage the other person to keep talking. That’s the key – get them to keep talking.