Active listening is apparently NOT defined as listening to someone while actively doing something else. Although, that’s likely the only form of active listening I’d ever participated in, until this week. According to a course I’m taking, in order to practice this method of listening, one must listen intently, without judgment, and refrain from interrupting and comparing.

When I think about listening without judgement, I think of simply withholding negative judgement regarding what the speaker is saying. But as I have delved deeper into the topic, I have realized that even a positive judgment can interfere with my ability to truly hear what someone is trying to say.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that turned awkward quickly and you weren’t quite sure why? Think about a time when someone told you something about his or her life, you replied in a positive way, and the person seemed irritated or upset for, what seemed to you, no reason.

Here’s an example. Say I was talking to a friend of mine once about her mother’s illness. In fact, she had told me through text that she would rather call me to share some news with me. When we got on the phone, her voice was somber. She told me “My mom passed all of her testing today.” I responded with, “Oh, that’s really wonderful!” I was expecting to hear more about the story and to discover why my friend sounded upset regarding what seemed like amazing news. Instead, she snapped back at me, “Well, I guess it is just wonderful.” My friend now seemed upset with me, she didn’t want to talk any longer, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. The conversation ended on a very awkward note. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I might have said wrong during that talk where my friend so badly needed my listening skills. Little did I know at the time that I didn’t actually have very good listening skills.

After learning about active listening and what it means to listen without judgment, I realized that by stating that my friend’s news was wonderful (aka, passing judgment) I was interrupting her story and attaching my own feelings to her experience. Her experience was a sad one because of the bigger picture of what she and her mother were enduring. The fact that her mother had passed her testing meant that she would be moving forward in having open-heart surgery. This was an uncertain and scary time for both my friend and her mother. Had I stopped myself from using judgment while listening to my friend, she would have been able to tell her whole story and her feelings surrounding it, and I could have offered empathy regarding the whole experience. What my friend needed in that moment, I did not give— simply because I passed judgment.

If you ever find yourself in similar situations where you just don’t seem to connect with the people you’re communicating with, try practicing each of the components of active listening.

  1. Listen intently. This means to put away all distractions and be sure you are focussed on hearing what is being said.
  2. Refrain from using judgement. Do not attach anything of your own to the story you are hearing.
  3. Refrain from interrupting. Allow the speaker to tell the entire experience without interrupting him or her.
  4. Refrain from comparing.

There are more components to active listening than simply not judging. If I look at each one, I am sure I can come up with a story that portrays how a conversation ended on a not-so-good note because of my inability to practice this skill.

Which one of these four factors do you already practice well? Which do you believe you struggle with the most?  Let me know in the comments!


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