If you’ve heard those words before, then you know what it feels like to zone out during a conversation.
You’re listening to your mom talk about plans for the week, riding in the car with a friend, or on a date with your crush, and suddenly you realize you haven’t heard a word they’ve said for the last five minutes.
Then you have to either ask them to repeat themselves or pretend you heard them and hope they don’t notice. Awkward.
It’s no fun being on the flip side of this situation, either. Think about the last time you’ve been talking about something passionately, only to realize that your conversation partner is just saying “Mmhmm” while they stare into the distance.
Being a good listener can help you avoid these kinds of uncomfortable exchanges. But beyond that, developing your listening skills can also help you…
Develop deeper relationships with friends and family
Cultivate lasting romantic relationships
Build a successful career path
But learning to truly listen isn’t as easy as it sounds. Let’s take a look at what it really means to be an excellent listener, and how you can start improving your listening skills right away.
First, we need to talk about an important concept—the difference between passive and active listening.
Passive listening vs. active listening
Here are some basic definitions:
Passive listening definition: Listening without reactions beyond nodding or small verbal agreements (like “Mmmhmmm” or “I see.”)
Active listening definition: Listening with your mind and heart. Taking in your conversation partner’s words and responding with engaging questions and comments that deepen the conversation.
When talking about passive vs. active listening, you may also hear people talk about hearing vs. listening. It’s a similar concept, so let’s break them down as well.
“Hearing” is the word we use to describe the physical act of taking in sounds around you.
“Listening” on the other hand, requires more action. When you listen to something, you are paying attention to the sounds.
In many ways, “passive listening” and “hearing” are very similar. They require little to no action, and are truly passive activities.
Reading over these definitions, it’s easy to see how much more value there is in active listening.
People like feeling acknowledged and heard. We all know how easy it is to blandly say “Go on” and “Oh wow” when you’re only half-listening to someone. But if you’re asking questions and interacting, you’re proving to that individual that you are listening fully.
Making the switch from a passive listener to an active listener won’t only make your conversation partners feel better. It will also help you get ahead in life.
Why passive listening will hold you back
Now that we have a clear definition of passive listening and its counterpart, active listening, let’s look at how too much passive listening can hold you back in life.
Passive listening means fewer deep relationships
Deep relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners make life worth living. Passive listening is like putting up roadblocks to those deep relationships—it prevents you from getting close to those in your orbit, because they know you aren’t listening.
If you become known as someone who isn’t a good listener, people won’t bother sharing important information with you. While they may still have light conversations with you, they won’t delve into their feelings or deep thoughts. It takes a lot of work and vulnerability to share one’s emotions; if people know you aren’t going to give them their full attention, then why would they go out of their way to open up?
Passive listening makes you seem irresponsible
If you want to move ahead in your career, it’s important that your colleagues and managers see you as someone who is reliable and trustworthy.
Your boss isn’t going to entrust you with important decisions or tasks if they think you aren’t capable of listening and getting it right. In fact, developing good active listening skills can help you become a detail-oriented person, one of the most desirable traits in any workplace.
This same principle carries over into personal lives. True friendships are founded on trust and reliability, and if you aren’t actively listening to your friends when they communicate with you, it will be next to impossible to cultivate those qualities.
Not to mention, if you really want to be a cool and charming person, remembering little details is one of the best things you can do. For example, if you actively listen on your first date and find out your romantic partner loves red velvet cupcakes, imagine how delighted they’ll be when you show up on date number four with a cupcake in hand. Talk about romantic.
However, remember that active listening is not performative. You shouldn’t be listening to someone’s words only so you can remember little details and impress them later. Active listening happens when you genuinely care about what your conversation partner has to share—that will be enough to remember these kinds of little details naturally.
Passive listening means you’re missing out
Surely you’ve experienced FOMO before—fear of missing out. If you’re a passive listener, you should be experiencing FOMO all the time. Because once you start actively listening, you’ll be amazed at how much you were missing out on before.
When people feel like they’re truly being heard, they are willing to share their perspective and their personal stories more freely. They will share stories that are funny, insightful, heartbreaking, exciting, sweet… you get the idea.
And when you truly listen to people, you too will pick up new information and insights that you never had before. One of the best ways to expand your mind is through actively listening to others.
The personality traits of good listeners
If you want to become a better active listener, there are certain personality traits you must work on first. Some of these may come naturally to you, and others may require some time and thought. But without these traits, you’ll have a hard time getting over your passive listening habits.
Being an active listener means you need to be thinking about your conversation partner as much (or more) than you are thinking about yourself—and that requires empathy.
It will be a lot easier to engage in the conversation if you can find a way to relate to it. This doesn’t mean drawing the conversation back to you—quite the opposite. You need to find ways to put yourself in the shoes of your conversation partner.
Curiosity & focus
Much of being an active listener is about taking a genuine interest in whatever it is your partner is talking about. And when you pair curiosity with empathy, you become someone who is genuinely interested not just in the subject at hand, but the person who is speaking.
If you want to be an excellent active listener, you need to ask the right questions to help keep the conversation moving forward and going deeper. Your curiosity is where these questions form—a genuine desire to know something.
But a brief word of warning: Your curiosity needs to stay centered on your speaker and the exchange at hand. You can’t let your curiosity become a distraction.
For example, let’s say you’re in a conversation with a friend who just got back from a vacation to Brazil. She wants to tell you about the adventures she went on, but in passing, she also mentions that she went to a soccer game.
You love soccer, and in a few minutes, you realize you’ve stopped talking about her trip to Brazil and are now talking about your favorite soccer players. In this case, your curiosity has been a distraction—and distraction is what causes passive listening.
That’s why it’s key to pair focus with curiosity. One without the other won’t do the trick—but put them together, and you’re bound to become a better listener.
Humility & patience
By now you know, active listening means you need to be focused on your conversation partners. But don’t worry if you’re struggling with this—it’s completely natural to want to talk about yourself frequently.
Learning to listen carefully and focus on others takes hard work—and it requires you to find a way to quiet the thoughts that may distract you when you’re supposed to be listening. Quieting these thoughts is what humility is all about.
Patience is another important skill to have in your arsenal if you want to become a better listener. You must be patient enough to let the conversation flow naturally, rather than trying to chime in with your own stories or focusing on your own thoughts.
And you must be patient with yourself. Becoming an active listener requires time and practice. You won’t pick it up overnight, but if you’re patient, over time you will find yourself using your active listening skills to make life better.
How to become a better active listener
The best method for improving your active listening skills is to have plenty of conversations! Nothing can be a substitute for real-life practice.
Being mindful and aware of your actions during these conversations is the first big step toward becoming a high-quality listener. Here are a few things to focus on the next time you’re working on this trait:
Remove distractions during conversations
I cannot stress this enough: Your smartphone is making you a passive listener.
I’m not here to lecture you about using phones. My own screen-time stats would definitely make that hypocritical. But the quality of conversation goes down with every smartphone that’s visible.
If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.
That empathetic bond, and the depth of conversation, is the main benefit of active listening. So your best bet is to silence the phone and put it away when you’re having live conversations with someone. And I mean put it away—even having it silenced and visible on the table will affect the quality of the conversation.
It’s not only phones that can distract us. Depending on where the conversation is happening, there may be other distractions—a loud car zooming by, a familiar face across the bar, loud music.
There are also internal distractions to contend with. What’s on my calendar tomorrow? Is he enjoying himself? What’s that smell? What will I have for dinner tonight? All of these thoughts will lead to passive listening.
Part of active listening is working to reduce these distractions.
If you’re working with physical distractions like noise or a busy atmosphere, perhaps you need to move the conversation or put it on hold until you’re in a better place.
If not, then there’s one thing that will always be your friend when building your active listening skills—eye contact. Nothing helps maintain focus and reduce distractions more than making eye contact with your partner.
Internal distractions will be a bit harder to manage, but some of my other tips below will help you tackle those.
Check in with your own feelings
If you’re practicing active listening, then it’s a good idea to check in with yourself before and after conversations.
Take a few minutes to sit still, breathe deeply, and assess how you’re feeling. Are you tired? Hungry? Excited? Confused? Step back from yourself and take a mental inventory.
In other words, practice some mindfulness. This will allow you to prepare for and/or assess the conversation. It’s the same thing you might do before taking a test—breathe deeply, think back on the lessons you’ve learned, and try to center your mind.
For example, let’s say you’re reflecting on a conversation where you felt like you did a lot of passive listening. If you know you went into the conversation feeling tired, then you can be pretty forgiving with yourself if you weren’t the most active listener. A good reminder to get some more sleep before important conversations.
If you come away from the conversation feeling a certain way—joyous, annoyed, stressed, relieved—it’s definitely worth analysis. What about the conversation brought up those emotions?
Finally, reflect on how well you actively listened. What do you remember about the conversation? When did you feel a moment of distraction, and why?
This kind of personal data collection can help you discover your strengths, and find areas for improvement.
Reduce your rebuttals and interruptions
You may know this feeling: You’re listening to someone, and they mention something that reminds you of a funny story or interesting fact. Suddenly, you stop listening to them and can only think about how you want to share your sudden insight. You might even interrupt them to get it out.
It’s also tempting to give your advice to someone, especially if they are airing a complaint or anxiety. But remember that sometimes people just want to vent—if they don’t ask for your advice directly, then they may simply want a good listener to hear them out.
This urge becomes even more insistent when you feel the need to argue with someone. Heated conversations often involve a lot of passive listening, because people are so focused on formulating their rebuttal that they stop listening to their conversation partner altogether. (Cue a screaming match.)
Being aware of your desire to interrupt, give unsolicited advice, or be contrarian can make it easier to stop these habits. When you are reflecting on conversations, think about the moments when you felt the urge to interrupt or be contrarian. Recognize the feeling, and then keep an eye out for it the next time you’re practicing active listening.
Aim for a 50/50 split (sometimes)
I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about the importance of focusing on your conversation partner and what they are talking about. But hopefully, if they are also actively listening to you, then you’ll have the opportunity to genuinely share your own thoughts and feelings as well.
A good conversation will often fall into a pretty neat 50/50 split between talking and listening. This is especially true for dating and friendships. You know it was a good date if you spent just as much time listening to them as you did talking about yourself.
In some situations, an imbalance of talking and listening is fine. For example, any time a friend or loved one comes to you in emotional distress, it’s best to give them the floor and turn all your active listening skills into overdrive.
The same goes for those conversations that are happening for a specific reason, like celebrating a friend’s promotion or giving feedback to your manager. In such cases, it makes sense that one person does a lot more talking than the other.
The key is to read the room. As an active listener, you’ll assess the situation and dynamic, then let the conversation flow naturally from there.
Try to embrace the moments of silence
Most people feel uncomfortable when there are big gaps of silence in conversation. But the reality is, when active listening is taking place, beats and gaps in conversation are not just natural, but necessary.
Active listening takes work. Your conversation partner is most certainly speaking faster than your brain can analyze what they’re saying. So you will need to take a moment from time to time to reflect on their words and formulate the right comment or question.
These moments of silence are like a fork in the road—you and your conversation partner have the opportunity to drive the conversation in a certain direction. Take the time to choose the most interesting, fulfilling path for both of you. And when you’ve had time to reflect, you’ll find the right words to break the silence and take the conversation in a new direction (unless your conversation partner beats you to it.)
Be willing to admit you weren’t listening
It may feel awkward, but if you really want to leave your passive listening ways behind, then you need to get comfortable admitting to your conversation partners that you were zoned out.
You don’t need to make a big deal about it. You can simply say something like, “Can you say that last part again? I didn’t quite understand.” Or you can make a joke out of it. “Can you repeat that? I thought the waiter was bringing our food and I was trying not to drool.”
You also need to be willing to admit when you need more information or context. When someone is talking about something and you feel a little lost, it’s tempting to just nod and smile and hope you’ll figure it out soon.
But there’s nothing wrong about asking your conversation partner to clarify something. Say something like, “I know you’ve mentioned this person before, but can you remind me how you know them?” or “It’s been a while since we talked about your job. Can you give me an update?”
I hope all these tips are helpful in your journey to become an active listener. Stick with it—if you do, you’ll soon be living a richer life.