One useful skill you won’t learn at school is the ability to communicate in an effective, healthy way. Techniques like active listening can help young people communicate better, build stronger relationships with friends and family, and so much more.

We rarely think about how we talk to other people, even though we do it all the time. Knowing even just a few principles about active listening can transform idle chats and serious talks with parents into productive conversations. Like all skills, active listening can be learnt with some practice.

Most of Us Aren’t Good at Listening

Even though you frequently engage in conversations, you may not be the best at listening. This is a widespread issue many people struggle with in their daily lives. One of the reasons it persists is that school teaches us to approach conversations from a critical perspective, like it’s a debate. It’s just one of the many unhelpful lessons schools impart onto students.

There are times and places when debate is vital, but real life usually isn’t one of those. The conversations most of us have are about understanding someone, supporting a friend, or mediating conflicts between family members. None of those situations are best served by treating them like a debate!

Another thing many people do in social situations is waiting for their turn to speak instead of digesting what the other person is saying. I understand how hard this can be, especially in groups, as I frequently struggle to know how and when it’s appropriate to jump in with my own comments. If you spend your time worrying about what you should say next, though, you’re not really listening to whoever is speaking.

Listening shouldn’t be passive. Sitting there being non-responsive when someone is talking can come across as cold or even mean. But active listening can help young people communicate better and avoid the pitfalls of passive conversations.

Use Active Listening for Better Communication

Active listening is a set of techniques that help you understand the person you’re talking to while communicating to them that you’re listening. Anyone in almost any situation can use these techniques, and they’re extremely easy to learn.

Key aspects of active listening:

  • Being non-judgemental. Your aim is to find out what the other person thinks, not to make judgements about their beliefs.
  • Asking questions. You are seeking to understand their perspective, so asking questions helps fill in your knowledge and shows them that you’re listening and taking them seriously. 
  • Seeking to understand. You want to try as much as possible to see what the other person is saying. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you want to make sure you have grasped their views and are representing them fairly. 
  • Reflecting what the other person says. When someone says they feel angry about being left out of a project, for example, listen to them and then say: “So what you’re saying is, you feel upset because you think we went ahead without you?” This gives the person a chance to confirm or correct your understanding.

Once you and your conversational partner understand each other’s perspectives, then you can move on to discussing how to proceed in a way that gives you both what you need.

Non-Verbal Active Listening Skills

Not everything we communicate is through words. If our body language shows we’re not listening, people will pick up on that. Active listening can help us communicate here, too, by adopting simple non-verbal habits.

Some non-verbal ways to make other people feel heard include:

  • Maintaining eye contact, so they know you’re paying attention.
  • Nodding, smiling, and saying “uh huh,” to show that you’re interested and are following what they say.
  • Not interrupting people – as tempting as it can be to share your thoughts! To make someone feel heard, you need to give them space to express their thoughts.
  • Being aware of body language, both theirs and your own. If someone is hunched over with their arms crossed in front of them, they may be feeling anxious, defensive, or overwhelmed. By contrast, if you sit with an open posture, people will feel more comfortable talking to you.
  • Showing interest and being patient. Often we feel like we need to jump into every conversation to show we get what someone is saying. But there’s value to stepping back and allowing someone to talk without assuming you know what they mean. Sometimes you’ll be surprised when people take things in a different direction from what you expect.

Examples of How Active Listening Can Help Young People Communicate

Let’s consider a few scenarios where young people put their active listening skills to practice.

Lucy is in 10th grade, and she finds out that her friend’s grandmother, Rebecca, recently died. Lucy sees that Rebecca is unhappy, but she’s not sure how she can make her feel better. When they have a quiet moment, Lucy could ask Rebecca how she’s feeling. Rebecca might say that she’s sad, still numb to the situation, or angry because she feels cheated out of time with her grandmother.

To use active listening, Lucy would nod and keep looking at Rebecca to show she’s listening. She also shouldn’t be shocked or dismissive if Rebecca is not feeling the way she expected. Lucy should listen patiently and show she understands by saying something like “It sounds like you’re upset that you’re missing out on time you would have liked to spend with your grandmother, and you’re angry at the world for depriving you of that.”

Now consider a group project at school. Robert, Tom, Allison, and Chanelle are working together on a history project. Robert wants to do the project on the Civil War, but Allison would rather focus on the Industrial Revolution. They could end up arguing back and forth about which idea is better, causing a lot of stress and not making any progress.

Chanelle steps in to help. She can ask Robert why he has his preference and listen as he explains that several members of his family are interested in the Civil War, so it’s a topic he knows a lot about. Then she can ask Allison why she prefers her option and listen as she explains that it’s a topic she’s studied before and found very interesting.

Chanelle can use active listening to communicate this to the group: “So Robert, you’re saying that you have access to information about the Civil War which could help us, and Allison, you’re saying that the Industrial Revolution is a more interesting topic to you.” If they both agree, Chanelle can put a new question to the group: Should they pick a topic which is easier to access information about or which is more personally interesting?

Using active listening in either scenario won’t solve the problem, but it will help make clear what the problem is and ensure everyone feels adequately heard. Then you can find a way to solve the issue through discussion.

Active Listening Skills Take Time and Practise

You may notice when you start trying to use active listening that you won’t always get it right. Sometimes you’ll misunderstand people, or struggle to hear what they’re saying, or revert back to your old, debate-like conversational habits. But that’s okay! Failure is how we learn, and like all skills, active listening takes practise. 

Don’t worry if you find active listening hard at first, or if you make a mistake. Keep trying, and keep learning, and you’ll find it an invaluable skill for communicating. Within the span of a few conversations, you’ll see just how useful this universal skill is for your life.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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