How To: Active Listening

Just like love languages, we all communicate in different ways — the way one person feels comfortable sharing, or what makes someone feels heard, is far from universal. If you’re struggling with how to make a partner feel heard, or important people in your life give you feedback that they wish you listened more, a mismatch of communication styles might be at play. It can be hurtful to hear that others aren’t reading you as emotionally present, especially when you actually feel very invested in them and their wellbeing! Here are a few ways to signal your interest in and empathy for what others share with you, and enhance your loved ones’ feelings of connection and care when they open up to you and work on being vulnerable.

1. Ask questions


It can sound counterintuitive to ask questions when we’re supposed to be listening — doesn’t that mean we’re talking over them? If you’re asking the right questions, it can actually have the opposite effect, inviting them to share more and get further into the issue. When we feel we’re listening most intently, it can feel to our loved one that we’re disengaged or thinking about something else — asking questions shows that we’re actively listening and actually want even more information. 

Asking questions can look like inquiring for more detail or context — “Wait, so this was the same Lisa that you met at the holiday party in January?” — or confirming important parts of the issue — “and this is AFTER he told you that you couldn’t invoice for any more overtime, right?” These show that you’re listening and connecting the pieces as someone shares, and you’re motivated to assign everything the correct weight and context; you can think of it almost like making notes in the margins or leaving post-its in a book that matters to you. Questions can also gently invite your loved one to share further or get more vulnerable: “Wow, he actually said that? How did you feel?” or “That’s unbelievable — would you have ever imagined that could happen?”

2. Explicitly affirm


Sharing often feels vulnerable, and when you’re watching someone’s impassive face while you speak, it’s easy to imagine that they’re bored, spacing out, or annoyed with you. (If you’ve ever been out with a group of new people and agonized once you got home about whether you talked too much or took up too much space, or had to give a Zoom presentation with everyone else’s camera off, you know the feeling.) When we hear nothing from our audience, it’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario — like that they don’t care.

One way to prevent this is to explicitly name and respond to what we’re hearing — you may have heard this described as “rephrasing things back to them” when you’re listening to someone, but another way to think of it is just affirming that you’ve heard them and care. This happens much more naturally in our speech than it sounds; it just means naming the person’s experience with emotional context to show that we’re internalizing it and responding to it. You can affirm someone’s experience about being cut off dangerously in traffic with something like “Right on the onramp to 35? Without even signaling? That’s crazy!” In a more personal or intimate context, someone sharing that something you did hurt them could be responded to like “wow, so when I was late to dinner, you thought I had totally forgotten we even had a date — yeah, that would be so awful!”

3. Offer emotional mirroring


One thing many of us struggle with when it comes to relating to others’ personal experiences is being able to tell when we’re relating in a comforting way, and when we’re actually making someone else’s feelings about us. One way to think of this is to pay attention to whether you’re talking about an internal shared experience or an external one. If a friend is relating a fight she had with her partner, sharing the details of a fight you had with a partner might indeed feel like you’re not centering your friend’s experience.

However, if you can think through the external details of both your friend’s experience and your own and look more at the emotional core of how it impacted you, that can be a really affirming and empathetic place to connect that validates how your friend is feeling and reassuring them that they aren’t alone. In practice, this looks like avoiding saying “I know what you mean, Taylor and I fight about money all the time, we actually just had a huge fight about it last month and I went to go stay at my mom’s” and instead of saying something more like this: “It sounds like you felt really helpless, and were extra frustrated because they brought up such a big money issue right before rent was due — I know when Taylor and I have fights about money, I always get way more upset about it than I do about other topics because I start thinking about what will happen if I can’t pay my bills.”

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