Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” – William Shakespeare

What is the art of listening? Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, college, sibling, spouse, or child who is trying to tell you a story or and find yourself reply with “huh” at the end of what they are saying? Listening is more than just lending and an ear and hearing the words someone is saying. It is about understanding what others are saying and interpreting it from the situation. How do we do that?

Listening is an interpersonal skill that allows us to effectively communicate with others. We have to listen to others a lot, in meeting, learning from a teacher, the news, stories about your kid’s day, stories about your parents’ day, or engaging in conversations with individuals when they need someone to talk to. There is so much we need to audibly digest in everyday life. How much of it can you really be expected to recall, and how do we prioritise what we retain?

One story that blows memory retention out of the water is Simon Reinhard who took on the Extreme Memory Challenge in 2016. This challenge involves contestants be shown a series of digits which they have to recall, each time the digits increase. Many audience members were struggling at 5, others got to 10 and just beyond Simon Reinhard far surpassed them and astounded everyone by recalling 240 digits in the correct order! A long time ago psychologist found that the normal memory span for an adult is being able to recall up to digits at a time, give or take a few (Miller,1956). Anything after that essential becomes overload and our ability to actively engage with the information is reduced. However, imagine being able to actively listen to others and retain that much information!

So, when we are engaging in a conversation that required our undivided attention how can we remain attentive? One way is to practice empathic listening. Being an empathetic listener is one way we can hear others and truly understand what they are saying. Empathic listening involves being non-judgemental, attentive, aware of non-verbal communication, perspective-taking, allowing silent moments, and following up. Here is a breakdown of 6 aspects of empathic listening to help understand what a person is saying.

  1. Don’t judge:

This can be difficult sometimes but having an open mind allows you to focus on the other person’s perspective. If you notice yourself starting to react to something, do your best to let it go. You are trying to support someone else with their experience, even if it differs from yours. You do not need to agree with everything a person says to show them you care. Do not interrupt, provide advice, correct the person, discount their feelings, or otherwise stop them while speaking. 

  1. Be present and attentive:

Give the person your undivided attention. Remove distractions such as your phone and try not to fidget. Ensure you have the time to spend with the person (or make the time) so that time worries don’t come out through non-verbal communication. Being present shows respect and the person is more likely to stay calm and feel safe to open up when they feel respected. 

  1. Be aware of body language:

Show your interest with non-verbal gestures such as leaning forward, making eye contact, and nodding your head. You can also provide verbal nods such as, “right” or “uh huh”, which can be especially useful if you are on the phone. Keep your posture open by not crossing your arms. Even acts of fidgeting and scattered eye contact can indicate that you are not interested in the conversation, so try and remain still. Also pay attention to the person’s tone of voice and body language to help you understand their emotions.   

  1. Perspective taking for empathy:

Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Improvisation in drama is particularly helpful for empathic awareness. The art of improvisation is about listening, being present and accepting. When you can accept somebody else’s reality, that is when we learn more about their situation and ourselves.

  1. Be comfortable with silence:

This can be a tricky one. It might be hard to find a spare moment in your personal life to escape the noise of the world and we constantly try to find things to fill the silence, our phones, music. When engaging in empathetic listening do not try and fill in silent moments and let the person speak at their own pace. It may feel awkward the first few times you try it. The other person could be thinking about what to say next, experiencing an insight through the process of talking to you, or trying to manage their emotions. Think about the context of the silence before responding.  

  1. Follow up:

Check in to see how they are going after the conversation. There are two times to do this, immediately afterwards where you try and summarise what they have said in your own words. This might be as simple as “I see, do you mind if I recap what you have said so that I’m sure I understand you.” This is a great thing to do because others feel heard, and it processes the situation in your own words.

The next time someone needs to talk and open up about something going on, lend them your ear and engage empathically.

Drama is a great way to build empathetic listening skills because it teaches you how to walk in other people’s shoes, aspects such as improv require actors to listen, be present and accept others offers.