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THE SCIENCE OF ACTIVE LISTENING

One of the most important skills you can develop to improve your productivity, creativity, and relationships is active listening. And science agrees.

Active listening is the art of really hearing what someone is saying. Truly listening to someone is not just nodding along and waiting for your turn to speak. It’s about fully engaging with the person in front of you by showing them you care about what they’re saying. Research has shown that when you actively listen to someone, you activate several areas of the brain.

One study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley found that when participants listened to a speaker recount a personal story, their brain activity synchronized with the speaker. This means that the listener’s brain was processing the story in a way that mirrored the speaker’s brain. Researchers believe that synchronization promotes empathy and understanding in people.

How can you improve your active listening skills? Here are a few tips, backed by research.

Pay Attention

You can’t listen if you aren’t paying attention. This might seem obvious, but actively paying attention is harder than it sounds. You live in a world of distractions. The pings and dings from social media, texts, emails, and more are constantly disrupting your focus and drawing your attention away. To be an active listener, you want to tune out all those distractions and focus on the person in front of you.

Research shows that when you pay attention to someone, you activate the prefrontal cortex of your brain, the area responsible for decision-making, attention, and other complex cognitive behaviors. This strengthens these areas, improving not only your communication skills, but your focus, concentration, problem-solving, and more.

One way to strengthen your attention is by practicing mindfulness. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind of everything except what you want to focus on. This takes a lot of practice, so you want to do this throughout the day. Try things like turning off your phone, silencing your notifications, and simply be present. You can also practice mindfulness through daily meditation and journaling. The more you’re able to stay in the moment, the better you’ll be at active listening.

Show Your Interest

Active listening isn’t just hearing what someone is saying. It’s being an active participant in the conversation. You can show you’re invested in what they’re saying through nonverbal cues like nodding, making eye contact, and leaning in when throughout the conversation.

Research shows that when you use nonverbal cues to signal your engagement in a discussion, the speaker is more likely to feel understood and validated. A Japanese study found that individuals who believed someone was actively listening to them had their reward system activated. They were more likely to view the conversation as positive and they were more likely to actively listen in return. This led to more productive and meaningful conversations.

You can practice repeating what they said to show that you understand. For example, if someone says, “I’m really struggling with this project at work,” you could respond with, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed with your workload right now.” Paraphrasing helps avoid misunderstandings and reassures the person talking that you are engaged in what they are saying.

Don’t Interrupt

This is big. Most people lock onto a point and wait for their turn to speak. And interrupting someone is a surefire way to show you’re not really listening to them. Even if you think you know what they’re going to say, let them finish their thought before jumping in.

Research has shown that when you interrupt someone, you activate the amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for fight-or-flight responses. This is referred to as having your amygdala hijacked because the abrupt interjection sends an alarm through the brain and triggers an emotional response. But when you allow someone to speak uninterrupted, you activate the prefrontal cortex, which promotes cognitive and emotional regulation.

If you need to interject, try using phrases like “Can I jump in for a moment?” or “I’d like to add something to that.” This shows that you’re respectful of their time and their thoughts.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is a great way to show you’re engaged in the conversation. It also helps to clarify any misunderstandings and encourages the other person to keep talking. Try asking open-ended questions that encourage the other person to share more. For example, if you’re discussing a project at work that they’re struggling with ask, “Why do you think [insert their obstacle] is such a challenge right now?” or “Can you tell me a bit more about [the obstacle]?”

Asking questions helps you better understand and retain information. Studies show that when you ask questions, you engage the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning. It helps solidify the information, which can be helpful if the conversation is more technical or complicated. By clarifying key elements of the discussion, you reassure the person talking that you understand the topic and it helps you remember the details better. 

Summarize the Conversation

At the end of the conversation, take a moment to summarize what you discussed. You don’t want to list the bullet points of the conversation. That’s a good way of making the entire discussion feel like a business transaction. Instead, paraphrase any agreements you both made, or points for follow-up. This can take some practice to come across naturally, but it’s worthwhile.

Summarizing information activates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area handles cognitive functions like working memory and learning. Repetition helps embed information in your brain, and when you repeat something in your own words, you’re even more likely to retain it. Even if there aren’t any action steps to take, the next time you see that person, you can ask about the conversation, which will clearly show them not only that you were listening, but that they were important enough to remember.

Conclusion

Active listening is a crucial skill for effective communication. It builds better relationships by strengthening the areas of your brain that promote empathy and understanding. But it also improves your memory, cognitive functionality, and emotional regulation. Becoming a better listener takes practice, but it’s a skill that will take you far in both business and life.

For more tips on how to be a better active listener, watch this video:

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