The 4 best active listening exercises
What is active listening? Hugh Prather, famed life advice author and cultural icon, once wrote on the subject in the now-acclaimed self-help novel Notes to Myself. In essence, active listening is the process of getting truly curious about someone else. As Prather put it, “I already know everything about me. You are what is novel about this conversation.”
Why should we try to actively listen? For one, it helps us actually absorb what others are saying. All of us have fallen victim to our own habits of pseudo-listening before, and the results are rarely good. Whether it’s misinterpreting a boss’ directions or forgetting to pick up an item at the store for a spouse, failing to actively listen can cause problems in our professional, romantic and personal lives.
Other reasons for active listening are less utilitarian and more aspirational. Active listening helps us be less self-involved, more interested in others, kinder, more patient, more thoughtful and more inspired. If you need to be convinced of why those things are good for you…
…well, this blog probably isn’t the place for you.
If not, here’s how to actively listen.
4 active listening exercises & tips you can incorporate right now
The best part about active listening is that it’s a learned skill. To do so, try practicing one or more of the following exercises. You might just find that both you and your conversational partners get a lot more out of your exchange.
1. To actively listen, check your story at the door
Before you even sit down to listen to somebody, check your story at the door. That means you’ll need to dispense with everything you came into the conversation with: your biases, your memories, your pre-conceived notions of how the conversation will transpire… the works.
Why is this important? Simply put, in conversations, most people have their own inner dialogue running while someone’s speaking. They’re thinking about what they need to do today, how they feel about the person they’re talking to, their memories of the last time they spoke to that person, and more.
All of those things get in the way of truly listening to someone. After all, how can you hear what someone has to say if you’re remembering the last time they insulted you? Conversely, if you’re immediately thinking of ways to help them solve a problem, you’re not hearing what they have to say, either.
The only thing you should be doing when you start to engage in a meaningful conversation with someone else is to ask them to tell you more. Start with that, and see where it leads.
2. Use encapsulating when active listening
The second active listening tip on this list requires reiterating what others have told you in order to understand where they’re coming from. When listening to someone, wait for a natural break in the conversation and really try to encapsulate their story. Here are some ways to start encapsulating what others have told you:
- “So am I right to believe that…”
- “What you’re saying is…”
- “Am I right to believe that…”
- “This is what I got out of what you just said. Do I have that right, or no?”
The goal here is not to get it right immediately. Instead, encapsulating works because it forces you to verify whether or not you understood what the other person meant. If that means revising the story several times, then that’s okay. The goal is to continue to work through what someone’s told you until they say you’ve got it “exactly right.”
3. Active listening requires validation
When engaging in active listening, it helps to validate your partner. It doesn’t matter if you agree with their feelings; what’s more important is that you understand that they are feeling a certain way about something. They may not be right about the situation, but they’re right about how they feel about it.
So, validate them. Tell them you understand, or want to understand, how something made them feel. Tell them you can see how a situation impacted them in the way that it did. Tell them you’re there for them.
Validating your conversational partner does two things: first, it creates a safe emotional space for someone to talk to you about what’s on their mind (you can’t actively listen if your partner isn’t actively telling you what’s going on, can you?).
Second, validating your partner allows them to speak more freely about what comes next. If they feel like you trust their recollection of events, they’re more likely to keep telling you the story, project or subject at hand.
4. Hold back opinions while actively listening
When active listening, don’t interject with your own opinions. Doing so can cloud what someone is trying to tell you; worse, it can distract them. They might not feel nearly as inclined to speak to you about what’s on their mind if you don’t give them the space and opportunity to do it.
What’s more, when holding a conversation with someone, find an appropriate time to ask whether or not they’d like your opinion. Maybe they just want to vent. Maybe they don’t need solutions. Or maybe they do!
But you’ll never know until you ask.
When applied correctly, active listening is a powerful skill
Active listening takes work, but it’s worth it. If you feel like these active listening exercises have been helpful to you, consult our page for more tips, tools, exercises and coaching advice.