Listening is an inherent component of any act of communication. We listen to voicemails, take in an employer’s feedback, and note what a partner has to say in an argument. Listening can also bring us inward. We constantly acknowledge (or disregard) our thoughts, emotions, and internal observations.
In many ways, acts of daily listening are unconscious. We take in information and send some back. It is an exchange as natural as blinking or breathing.
However, there is a distinction between passive listening and active listening.
Passively engaging with another’s words is not necessarily a negative form or response. But actively engaging with your own thoughts or those of a friend can enliven and deepen relationships more profoundly than passive response. In fact, active listening can transform the way you engage with yourself and the world around you. Here’s what really opening your ears can accomplish.
Give Others a Chance To Be Heard
Everyone has a voice. We are filled with stories, narratives, opinions, and beliefs. Sharing these is a vital component of being a human in this world.
It is particularly critical in relationships, both personal and professional. When both parties in a relationship have the opportunity to express themselves, that relationship is far more likely to deepen in a profound and healthy way. Unlimited expression can give friends, partners, and family members a chance to learn more about themselves and others. Feeling heard is frequently empowering, giving people permission to make healthy decisions, explore new thoughts, and be themselves.
Active listening means simply taking in whatever your conversation partner has to say. True active listening does not involve verbal cues, head nodding or shaking, or much response. It simply means holding space for the other and giving them the full opportunity to share what they have to share.
Active listeners give talkers a chance to truly and completely be heard. Certain kinds of active listening that reiterate or mirror what the speaker has been saying—rather than adding any new information—can be deeply engaging and validating.
You may even be surprised at how good active listening feels. Most of us want our voices to be heard and validated more powerfully than we believe. Witnessing your conversation partner’s joy and relief in being heard can be similarly empowering for you.
Catch a Break
Many people assume that active listening involves responding verbally to what a speaker shares. In this sense, “full engagement” means hanging on a speaker’s every word and offering constant rebuttals, responses, and suggestions when appropriate.
However, active listening does not require listeners to offer any new information or perspective. In fact, doing so is discouraged, as it can change a speaker’s experience of sharing and promote inauthenticity. This is good news for both parties.
You get to catch a break from such involved, responsive communication and truly relax into the act of listening and holding space. At best, listeners simply mirror, paraphrase, or elicit information from a speaker while maintaining attentive eye contact.
Of course, active listening does require you to be present. This can be difficult for some people, especially if you aren’t feeling entirely engaged with what your partner has to say. Nonetheless, active listening can be surprisingly relaxing, without requiring listeners to “give” as much as is often required.
Cultivate Inner Awareness
You may find that extended sessions of active listening coax your ears inward. Holding space for others is directly proportionate to your own ability to travel within.
Active listening can cultivate a profound inner awareness. In fact, actively listening to your own thoughts and narratives can foster an essential kind of mindfulness that eliminates judgement, feedback, or unwanted criticism.
In fact, learning to actively listen to your own voice can train you to simply observe your experiences and emotions. It quiets the self-talk and promotes self-discovery and validation. Practice listening to yourself by journaling, talking out loud, or creating art to express an idea, feeling, or memory.
Navigate Challenges With Ease
Active listening can foster new levels of empathy, enabling listeners to fully engage with a speaker’s experience. The more empathetic we are of others’ situations, the greater our means are of smoothly navigating challenge in our own lives.
Active listening can train us to sense the nuances in a complex emotional experience and view ideas more objectively. Practiced on ourselves, active listening can validate our emotional responses and encourage self-expression in difficult times.
In tandem with heightened empathy, heightened self-awareness can help us manage challenging situations with greater ease.
Promote Mutual Conversation
It isn’t easy to come by mutual, respectful conversation these days. Most of us are comfortable having digital conversations or keeping our phones nearby when meeting someone face-to-face. If anything, standard communication in the digital age is inherently distracted.
Other conversations are imbalanced, prioritizing one speaker’s point of view and shortcutting the other’s. Distracted or non-mutual conversation is less likely to be fruitful. It may even be damaging. When you practice active listening, you show your commitment to mutual conversation. You indicate your desire to fully listen to another and, in turn, demonstrate the standard for communication you hold.
You may find that frequent active listening fosters more mutual conversations between you and your colleagues, boss, mother, partner, or son. As such, you may even feel that your communications are more productive, advancing relationships and ideas faster than passive listening.
The secret to rich, mutual conversation is simpler than most assume. Merely listening to others in an active, engaged manner can validate their opinions and life experiences.
It can also foster deeper levels of self-awareness and empathy, both vital for maintaining healthy relationships and navigating a challenging future. Active listening can also be much like meditating—it requires intense presence, but it can be physiologically and mentally rewarding.
Who knew that simply opening your ears could do so much for community and self? Listen on!
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Kate McGunagle is a freelance writer, editor, and mindfulness blogger. Her blog (A Lighter Earth) focuses on conscious living, mindfulness, and sustainability. A graduate of Princeton University and Boston University, she recently moved to the northwest of the U.S. to become a yoga instructor, launch her writing career, and build an off-grid tiny house in the mountains.