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Are You an Active Listener? What are the traits to look out for?

Every individual is different, and yet it's interesting how many of us go through the same sort of problems, repeatedly. When couples walk through my doors for couples counselling, I just know that one of these two sentences will definitely come up: "He/ She never listens to me!", or "I just don't feel heard". These statements highlight the significant impact of feeling unheard within a relationship. When one partner feels that their thoughts, emotions, and experiences are consistently overlooked, it can create a sense of disconnection and resentment.

So how shall we listen? How can we "show" the other person that we are listening? There's a little showmanship involved actually. What good is listening when the other person cannot see or sense or feel that you are in fact listening? In this article, let's [re]discover some of the practical strategies to engage more deeply with others, especially the significant ones.

The 5 Key Traits of an Active Listener

Listening is a crucial aspect of one-on-one communication. Taking a genuine interest in the other person and making them feel truly understood is paramount. While each person's definition of high-quality listening may vary, there are 5 recurring traits that set active listening apart. These include:

  1. attentiveness;

  2. conveying understanding;

  3. thoughtful questions;

  4. open-mindedness; and

  5. non-verbal feedback.

To incorporate these behaviors into your listening practice, consider the following scenario: Imagine a close friend who wants to discuss an issue they're facing in their relationship. 


Before the conversation begins, ensure you eliminate any distractions from the environment. Stop what you were doing, remove your headphones, and place your phone far away from sight. Studies have shown that even the mere presence of a phone can hinder the intimacy and fulfillment of a conversation.

Once you have eliminated all the external distractions, let the dialogue begin. An active listener is fully present in the conversation, gives her undivided attention to the speaker, and eliminates internal distractions. Facing the speaker and maintaining eye contact is one of the best ways to show that you are listening, attentively. In fact, studies suggest that maintaining good eye contact by meeting your partner's gaze 80% of the time and reserving the remaining 20% to gather information and formulate your responses can significantly enhance the quality of your listening experience. [There is one special little trick about this - pop me a message if you are interested].

Conveying Understanding

Attentive listening also entails refraining from interrupting. Obviously, it doesn't mean you have to remain completely silent, but you need to remember that the conversation isn't just about you. Seek natural pauses to acknowledge any emotions that the speaker may be going through. A simple validation of a person's feelings can go a long way. Here are some examples, "I can imagine that must be challenging for you" or "It sounds like you're feeling frustrated." Your empathetic responses show that you genuinely understand their perspective. Sometimes, by simply summarising what the other person had just said can also convey understanding. One of the ways to do this could be by saying "am I right to hear that you feel frustrated because XYZ happened?" 

While conversations involve back-and-forth exchanges, resist the urge to plan your response while the speaker is talking. Stay fully present, and if you lose focus, don't hesitate to ask for clarification or repetition. Seeking clarity shows your dedication to truly understanding their point of view. And remember, silence is not something to fear. Allowing moments of quiet can provide both you and the speaker with valuable time to reflect and contemplate. Talking about seeking clarification, it brings us to our next point. 

Thoughtful Questions

As your friend shares their issue, you can ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to encourage them to delve deeper into their thoughts and feelings. For example, you might ask, "How did that make you feel?" or "What do you think might be the underlying cause of this problem?" or "In a perfect world, how would this situation be resolved?" These questions show that you are actively engaged and interested in helping them explore the situation further. One particularly useful strategy in counseling and coaching is called "solution-focused". It is by drawing attention away from the problem and turning towards generating a solution. A lot can be said about solution-focused dialogues. It is useful not only within a couples counselling setting, but also in business settings. Feel free to get in touch to discuss more about it. 


We are all humans, and we have our own standards and value judgments. And yet, when actively listening, could we simply put aside our own judgments for a moment and listen open-mindedly? By consciously avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions, we can let our counterpart freely express themselves without interrupting or imposing your own opinions. It also makes it easier for us to acknowledge that their experiences and feelings are unique to them and may differ from our own. You avoid dismissing their perspective or invalidating their emotions, even if their views differ from what you might personally believe.


Non-Verbal Feedback

Another fundamental communication strategy to note is that in any face-to-face communication, non-verbal feedback plays a very important role. Where verbal and non-verbal cues were incongruent, such as when the words spoken differed from the tone of voice and body language used non-verbal cues accounted for a larger portion of the impact on the receiver's understanding of the speaker's feelings and attitudes. So make sure that our body language is actually in line with the content of our words. In congruency could easily lead to misunderstandings!

These seemingly small adjustments in your listening approach can have a profound impact. When people feel genuinely heard, they experience increased satisfaction, trust, and connection in their relationships. In fact, studies suggest that maintaining good eye contact by meeting your partner's gaze 80% of the time and reserving the remaining 20% to gather information and formulate your responses can significantly enhance the quality of your listening experience. Additionally, the average person speaks around 135 to 160 words per minute, while the mind processes between 400 and 600 words per minute. This discrepancy often leads to mental drift, causing your attention to wander. By anchoring yourself in the present moment and fully absorbing what your partner says, you not only demonstrate your appreciation but also enable yourself to respond genuinely, making your partner feel valued and understood.

In the workplace, employees who feel heard are less likely to experience burnout and hold more favorable perceptions of their managers. Interestingly, while it may be easier to listen to those with whom we agree or like, it is precisely in situations where we disagree or have personal reservations that active listening becomes even more crucial. Psychological reactance theory suggests that attempting to force someone to change their mind often leads to defensive reactions. However, recent studies indicate that high-quality listening fosters open-mindedness by creating a non-judgmental and psychologically safe space.

It's important to note that active listening doesn't necessarily imply agreement or a need for happy resolutions. Rather, it centers around the act of being heard. Sometimes, just feeling understood is enough to initiate deeper and more meaningful conversations, even during disagreements.

In conclusion, the art of active listening holds immense power to nurture meaningful connections and enrich our interactions. By internalising these principles and embracing them in our conversations, we create an environment where both parties feel valued and respected. So, let's listen actively, remove distractions, ask thoughtful questions, summarise and seek clarification, and embrace moments of silence. Together, we can cultivate empathetic and authentic communication, transforming our personal and professional relationships and fostering personal growth.

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