Improve Your Conversations With These Active Listening Techniques

By Claire Doran

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, many of us will spend our days eating lots of delicious and mouth-watering foods with our families, friends and partners. This time presents us with the perfect opportunity to connect with each other again, reflect on things that we may perhaps have taken for granted, and to bring that awareness and gratitude to the forefront of our minds.

Whether you can’t stand the folks that you’ll be spending time with this holiday or can’t get enough of them, isn’t it best to make the most of your time together? To sweeten your conversations and continue to grow your relationships over the holiday break, practice some of these active listening skills that our mediators use in our cases to help open communication and cultivate common ground.

Ask Open-Ended Questions: Open-ended questions invite the listener to respond with more than a simple one-word “Yes” or “No” answer. Asking open-ended questions also lets your listener know that you want to hear more about their story, and that you’re not just listening for information. They convey curiosity and a desire to understand the other person’s perspective.

CLOSED-ENDED QUESTION: “Did you like the turkey and cranberry sauce?”

OPEN-ENDED QUESTION: “What did you think of the turkey and cranberry sauce?”

Rephrase/Summarize: Rephrasing or summarizing information that you hear is a helpful listening tool. It gives you the opportunity to make sure that you understood what you were hearing, and also shows that you have been paying attention, not spacing out or formulating a response. For example, after your stepfather mentions that the book club is dwindling in numbers because folks are moving out of state, you might say “So you’re sad because your friends are moving away and you don’t have folks to share your hobbies with?” From there, your stepfather might agree and elaborate, or he might explain that he’s actually looking forward to vacationing in all the new cities they moved to.

Even when we have the best intentions, some communication styles may shut down conversation rather than encouraging it. We find that this is frequently true for families and friends who believe that because they love and care for each other so much, that they can be more “honest” about their opinions. Sometimes we fall into the trap of assuming that we can mind-read and already “get” what the other person is trying to say before they’ve finished speaking.

By being mindful of the following roadblocks to communication, you can spend your time connecting with your loved ones rather than soothing bruised feelings and smoothing ruffled feathers.

Avoid Counseling or Advising: When solicited, advice can be invaluable. However, we frequently jump to offering solutions when that’s not helpful to the other person. Sometimes counseling and advising sounds like…

  • “Here is what you need to do…”
  • “What about trying this…”
  • “It is not as bad as you think…”

Instead, try asking them open ended questions about their concerns, fears, or challenges.
Avoid Minimizing: Sometimes, we dismiss others’ problems because we want to cheer that person up. Sometimes, we also minimize their concerns because we don’t care or don’t have the time to get into the issue. Some minimizing phrases are…

  • “Relax! There is nothing you can do now. You have to let it go.”
  • “Who cares? Just forget it and move on.”

This is a great time to reflect the other person’s emotions and ask questions.

  • “It seems like you’re really preoccupied with this issue. I’m concerned about you because I want you to be able to enjoy yourself while you’re here for the holidays.”
  • “It seems like you’re really upset about this. Why did his response affect you so much?”

Remember, we can always become better listeners. Hopefully by using these techniques, you’ll have the opportunity to practice your listening skills over the vacation and connect just a little bit more deeply with your loved ones!

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