Improve Your Relationships with Active Listening

A man and a woman talking and smiling.

Active listening skills are essential building blocks for strong and meaningful relationships. However, not everyone is naturally gifted with this skill. The good news is the art of active listening is a learned behavior that can be improved with practice.

“Active listening” is a term coined in 1957 by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson who wrote that these skills are necessary to fully understand what a speaker is communicating. By implementing these tips, you can enhance your listening skills and strengthen the connections in your relationships.

Focus on the speaker

The first step in being a good listener is to give the person speaking your full attention. Put away any distractions, such as your phone or computer, and make eye contact with the person speaking. This sends a message that you are present and interested in what they have to say.

Listen without judgment

One of the more impactful scenes from the hit show, Ted Lasso, takes place in the local pub centered around a game of darts. As Ted readies himself to close out a game of darts with the vindictive former owner of his club, AFC Richmond, he passes along a quote that stuck with him from his hometown, “Be curious, not judgmental.” Ted references this quote to drive home the point that if the owner wasn’t so brash to think Ted would flounder in darts, he would have learned that Ted and his father bonded over the game during his childhood.

“Be curious, not judgmental” aptly encapsulates the importance of approaching people with curiosity rather than judgment. This means avoiding evaluation, critique, or advice-giving to the person speaking. Rather, your role is to provide a safe and non-judgmental space for them to express themselves. This can help the person feel heard and understood, and it will encourage them to continue speaking openly and honestly. It will also motivate them to reciprocate the same level of interest. Assume that the person you’re listening to knows something or has experienced something that you have not and approach the interaction with curiosity.

 Empathize with the speaker

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. When you listen with empathy, you show that you care about the person and their experience. You can practice empathy by imagining yourself in the person’s shoes and trying to understand what they might be feeling. This can help you connect with the person on a deeper level and build trust in your relationship. In my undergraduate program, I had a professor tell our class, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Showing consideration and engaging with our capacity for empathy allows us to develop more meaningful connections.

Ask open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to encourage the person to continue speaking and to gain a deeper understanding of their perspective. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, ask questions that allow the person to share more information and to expound on their thoughts and feelings in greater detail.

Avoid interrupting

Interrupting the person speaking can be distracting and can show that you are not truly listening. Instead, let the person speak until they have finished, and then respond in a thoughtful and considerate manner. This shows respect for the person and their experiences, and it also provides you with a clearer understanding of what they are trying to convey.

Summarize and reflect

Summarizing and reflecting on what the person has said is a great way to show that you have been listening attentively. This involves restating the main points of what the person has said and checking your understanding of their perspective. This can help to ensure that you have a clear understanding of the person’s experience and can help to build trust in your relationship.

Practicing active listening is a valuable skill for strengthening our connections with others and providing a pathway to promote the deeply rooted human desire to be heard and understood. By focusing on the speaker, listening without judgment, empathizing with the speaker, asking open-ended questions, avoiding interruptions, and summarizing and reflecting on what has been said, we can enhance our listening skills and build stronger relationships with those around us. Whether it’s with friends, family, significant others, or coworkers, good listening skills are essential for fostering healthy and meaningful relationships in our daily lives.

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Matthew Werkman LLMSW

More about Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

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I consider it a privilege to hear people's stories and develop a therapeutic relationship to discover new growth and overcome adversity. If you are feeling stressed or stuck, therapy can help restore balance and facilitate lasting change.