“Active listening” is not just “listening” or “paying attention,” which is merely receiving information from another person without giving them feedback. When practicing active listening, you respond to the speaker with verbal and nonverbal signs to show that you are paying attention, that you care about what they are saying, and that you care about them.
Active listening cues are signs of interest. But what if you are not interested in the topic of conversation? What if you have heard the story the speaker is telling before? What if you pride yourself on your honesty and cannot abide the thought of feigning interest?
The key here is a question of degree. Most people increase active listening cues when they are actually interested and decrease them when they are not – but they don’t turn them off altogether, because that would signal not just a lack of interest in the topic but a total lack of interest in the speaker.
If you have never thought about active listening cues before, it may be challenging for you to develop different intensities of active listening, to send these signals appropriately, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t fulfill the same goals in different ways. Although most people use nonverbal active listening cues for maximum efficiency, they certainly won’t mind if you say something like “Please keep going — this is interesting!” For polite ways of showing that you’re not interested in the current topic, even though you care about the relationship, see changing the topic.
When Active Listening is Important
Ritual Exchanges (Least Active Listening Required)
Informational Exchanges (Some Active Listening Required)
More Interpersonal Speech: Opinions and Judgments (More Active Listening Required)
Emotional Interpersonal Speech (The Most Active Listening Required)
A Few Things that can Work Against Active Listening
Abrupt Changes of Topic
Avoidance of Eye Contact
Note that people can do very successful active listening on the telephone or in the dark, so avoidance of eye contact doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. If you are talking face-to-face to someone who doesn’t know you well, you may need to explain that you can’t listen well if you’re getting visual stimulation at the same time, and that looking away actually shows that you’re concentrating on their words – and then be sure to increase other active listening cues to compensate!
Engagement in Other Activities
Active Listening Cues
Not all of these responses need to be used in every conversation, but using a mix of verbal and nonverbal techniques is more likely to result in the perception that you are interested and you care, which is the most important part of establishing and maintaining good relationships. If one technique makes you uncomfortable, you can compensate by using other techniques. You might start by practicing each separately until it feels natural, but then try to combine them. Overusing just a single technique is likely to backfire.
Verbal Active Listening Cues
Positive Minimal Response
Asking for More
Positive Evaluation (Compliment)
Nonverbal Active Listening Cues
Gaze and Eye Contact
You can try to develop more typical patterns of eye contact using the exercises from this unit and the turn-taking unit, but if eye contact is too intense for you, you may need to explain to your conversational partners that you listen better if you don’t make eye contact – and be sure to increase other active listening cues to compensate!
Mirrored Facial Expressions
If you have trouble with eye contact, you may not notice (or have learned how to read) others’ facial expressions, and therefore you won’t be able to match them. This won’t stop others from paying attention to and interpreting your facial expressions, however. If you feel comfortable that you can recognize the speaker’s emotions by the tone of their voice (in combination with the messages they’re producing), you could still try matching your facial expression to their emotions.
But if this seems too complicated, you might want to try the “happy/sad smile” technique. Smiling at someone is a great way to communicate that you are happy to be with them and are enjoying listening to them. But there is a risk: if they tell you something sad and you continue to produce a happy smile, you will appear to be enjoying their pain – definitely not a friendly response. So most of us have developed our “sad smiles” or “brave smiles”: the lips curve slightly up, but are pressed together (and may even quiver), and the eyes look sad. This communicates sadness to empathize with the message while still conveying that you like the speaker and enjoy the conversation.
Check out this great example of mirroring during an ongoing conversation.
Fake (Social) Smiles
Fake (Social) Laughter
Likewise, most people have fake (social) laughs, to show that they are not genuinely amused, but they do recognize that the speaker was trying to amuse, they appreciate the intention, and do not wish to hurt the feelings of the speaker. Social laughs can be distinguished from genuinely amused ones because the mouth is kept closed and there is just a single pulse of laughter — it sounds like air being gently snorted out the nose, with or without accompanying vocalization in the mouth. When this co-occurs with a fake smile (which is quite common), it clearly expresses fake amusement, and will not be taken as a signal that the fake-laugher has something to say. A fake laugh that occurs with no smile, with pursed lips, or even a slight frown is generally interpreted as a “huh” sound — a sign of surprised interest and thought — which may also interpreted to mean that you would like a turn at talk. All of these uses and interpretations imply active listening, and so are socially valued!
You should not think of these behaviors as insincere, but as a form of short-hand code that has developed over time. You are sending a sincere message that you still appreciate the speaker, even if you are not pleased or amused by what they say, and this message will be correctly interpreted and understood.
This (spliced-together) clip contains two examples of a social (fake) laugh. In the first instance, the professor asks “Who else teaches at Mills?” and the student replies “I have a list.” The social laugh here seems to be a signal that she is not trying to put herself above him by having knowledge that he lacks. In the second case, he acknowledges that he “butchered” the title of a book (he hasn’t remembered it correctly), and she laughs as if this were a joke (rather than the simple truth), to reassure him.
Posture and Body Language
If Someone Thinks You’re Not Listening
If the speaker thinks you’re not listening, then she will start using subtle signs to try to get your attention. Whether or not you were actually listening, you have committed a social blunder, hurting the feelings of the speaker by implying a lack of interest.
- Raising the volume of the voice
- Repeating what was just said
- Adding tag questions to the end of a sentences to force a response (“don’t you think?”, “right?” etc.)
- Asking if you heard, or asking you to repeat what was just said
- Stopping talking
- Changing the subject abruptly to an unrelated topic
- Sarcastically saying “Hello?” (“Is anybody home?”)
- Staring or suddenly making more direct eye contact
- Looking angry or upset
- Snapping fingers, using hand gestures, or touching you lightly
- Walking away
If you were not, in fact, paying attention…
If you were paying attention….
If you were paying attention, you should say so (but not angrily or defensively – remember that even though you aren’t guilty of the offense you were accused of, you are still guilty of a social blunder). Try to rephrase or even quote what the speaker has just said to prove it. Then, ask the speaker to continue. Later, when a topic-transition is appropriate, you could explain to the speaker that you know you sometimes don’t appear like you’re listening, but that you’re working on understanding why. Ask them to explain why they thought you weren’t listening.
- Brownell, Judi. (1986). Building Active Listening Skills. Prentice-Hall.
- Rost, Michael. (1990). Listening in Language Learning. Longman.
- Manusov, Valerie & Miles L. Patterson. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Sage Publications.
- BBC Video. (2001). The Human Face [DVD]. Watch free online at http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-human-face/
- International Listening Organization. http://www.listen.org/
- White, Goodith. (1998). Listening. Oxford University Press.