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We all know that listening is important, but when is it most important, and how do we make sure we’re doing it in a way that helps us strengthen our connections with others?

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 50 percent of students just want to be listened to during times of distress. Sometimes what people need most is the opportunity to talk. This helps build deeper connections and can solidify relationships, whether with friends, loved ones, or acquaintances. So how can you demonstrate that you’re really hearing what other people say? Here are three ways.

1. Listen carefully

Active listening refers to the goal of truly understanding what someone says. Facilitating a conversation where the speaker feels heard is a crucial part of good communication. “Sometimes people are just waiting for their turn to speak,” says James from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “It feels like what you’re saying is just going in one ear and out the other.”

Dean, a college student in Oshawa, Canada, suggests, “If you care about someone, show it.” Here are some basic techniques:

  • Allow silence in conversation so the speaker has time to reflect.
  • Ask open-ended questions. These lead to more descriptive answers, rather than just a “yes” or “no.”
  • Paraphrase the speaker’s words to show that you’re listening and to confirm that you understand what they are saying.
  • Summarize the conversation. This again serves as validation for the speaker and an opportunity to clarify anything you’ve misunderstood.

2. Use your body

In the recent Student Health 101 survey, 22 percent of respondents ranked eye contact as the most important part of a conversation. Sarah from Fort Collins, Colorado says, “I look directly at the person I’m talking to so he or she knows I’m paying attention.”

A leadership manual from the University of Missouri in Columbia suggests using the following body language:

  • Open posture: Uncross your arms and legs.
  • Remove physical barriers between you and the speaker. E.g., move that plant out of the way so you can see each other.
  • Lean toward the speaker (slightly).
  • Make eye contact about 70 percent of the time when you’re listening. Careful, though; more than that and it can start to feel creepy. Some cultures may prefer even less eye contact.
  • Nod silently to show agreement or encouragement.

3. Increase understanding

Using these skills will help you achieve academic results too. For example, taking notes during class can help you be a better listener, and that can bump up your grades.

Effective communication combines welcoming body language with active listening skills. Practicing these helps ensure that the people you speak with feel heard and that you get the most out of conversations.

Take a quiz to find out how well you read body language and facial expressions.

Check out these active listening techniques

Action

Purpose

Examples

Nonverbal encouragement

  • Let the speaker know you’re listening without interrupting.
  • Provide silent validation of the speaker’s feelings.
  • Leaning in
  • Maintaining eye contact

Clarification

  • Confirm that you understand what’s being said 
  • This offers the speaker an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings
  • “It sounds like you’re feeling…”
  • “What I hear you saying is…”
  • “…Am I understanding correctly?”

 

Paraphrasing

  • Demonstrates careful listening without parroting back what the speaker said.
  • Allows the speaker to hear what they’ve said. This may prompt them to clarify.
  • “So what I think I hear you saying is…”
  • “I understand that…”
  • “It seems like you…”

 

Summarizing

  • Pulls together the discussion’s main ideas.
  • Creates a shared basis for future discussion and/or action.
  • “It sounds like the main issues are…”
  • “The things you’d like to have happen are…”

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Article sources

Dr. Isis Artze-Vega, assistant director, Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Florida International University, Miami.

Akechi, H., Senju, A., Uibo, H., Kikuchi, Y., Hasegawa, T., & Hietanen, J. K. (2013). Attention to eye contact in the West and East: Autonomic responses and evaluative ratings. PloS one, 8(3), e59312.

Artze-Vega, I. (2012, October 1). Active listening: Seven ways to help students listen, not just hear. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/active-listening-seven-ways-to-improve-students-listening-skills/

Campbell, R. (1997). Leadership: Getting it done. Retrieved from http://web.missouri.edu/~campbellr/Leadership/chapter6.htm

HelpGuide.org. (2014, December). Nonverbal communication. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eq6_nonverbal_communication.htm

Rust College. (n.d.). Note taking will make you a better student. Retrieved from http://www.rustcollege.edu/businessdivision/note_taking.pdf

Schulz, J. (2012, December 31). Eye contact: Don’t make these mistakes. Retrieved from http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/eye_contact_dont_make_these_mistakes

Taft College. (n.d.). Active listening skills. Retrieved from http://www.taft.cc.ca.us/lrc/class/assignments/actlisten.html

The George Washington University. (n.d.). Active listening. Retrieved from http://ode.hr.gwu.edu/active-listening

U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Active listening. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/65759.htm