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Tuning in: How active listening leads to better lives

“Did you hear me?”

My friend’s question jolted my mind back into the room as my eyes clamored to pick up on her body language. Halfway through our conversation, I had tuned her out without thinking and moved on to fantasizing about donuts. Little did I know, given that I wasn’t providing her with my full attention, she had asked me a question. A very important one, at that. 

Since she was a close friend of mine, I apologized to her for somewhat checking out and we continued our conversation. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t hear what she was saying, I just hadn’t been paying enough attention to give her a constructive response. This is what happens when you’re “hearing” but not “actively listening.” 

Hearing is when you’re passively hearing somebody’s words but not actively paying attention to understand what they're saying. Active listening starts with intention. It’s the intention to give somebody who is talking to you your full attention and concentration. It's a conscious choice that demands you to focus on the other person’s words, feelings and experiences. Academic studies explain that we only remember between 25 percent to 50 percent of what we hear, according to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience

This means when you’re telling your girlfriend about what made you upset or you’re talking to your boss or your friends, they only hear half of what you’re saying most of the time. Listening is a skill. It's a skill that we can all benefit from when worked on consciously. It works to improve our lives and allows us to get the best out of our relationships. 

Actively listening immensely influences our personal, professional and academic lives. In your personal relationships, entering a conversation with a friend, family member or significant other with the intention of listening can drastically change the way the conversation might go.

When you're thinking about what you’re going to say while a person is talking, you're not actively listening and might overlook a crucial part of the conversation. By intentionally listening to what the other person has to say and giving them your full attention, you can be fully present with them. People want to be heard, validated and understood. This act in itself conveys that you care about the person and therefore strengthens your relationship. 

Active listening contributes to reaching success in the workplace as well. Carefully listening to criticism or conversations with your boss or colleagues increases our self-awareness. “Listening contributes in a fundamental way to our wellbeing and the quality of our relations,” according to Psychology Today

Active listening is not only a habit that can help you in your personal or professional life, but also it can significantly increase your productivity in academic spaces. I remember one of the first workshops that I had to sit through for my Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) program solely focused on how to be an active listener. 

Going into that seminar, I was annoyed. I thought, “I know how to listen to people, why do I need this?” Little did I know, my listening skills could’ve been heavily improved. As a student at the University, it has changed the way that I talk to my professors and allowed me to improve my networking skills. 

On the other hand, not everybody can attend a workshop on active listening. When we have access to the world on our phones, coupled with the hustle and bustle of our environments, there are a lot of distractions out there. These distractions can sometime force their way into our minds, or we can give in without even thinking about it. Being a good listener isn’t easy and it takes some work. The only way to improve your listening skills is actually through practice. 

“If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as he/she says them — this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused,” according to MindTools

Some other ways you can improve your listening skills are by showing the person you’re listening with a simple head nod or agreeing with something they’ve said. You can also provide feedback and hold off on interrupting them. When we go into conversations and spaces with the intention of listening to the stories of others, we not only help people, but also improve our own lives. We get to fully enjoy what learning from others really feels like when we’re actively listening to them, and all it takes is some practice. 

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