Existential Psychology

Active Listening

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Primary narcissism is probably the biggest reason that real communication breaks down. Many consider listening to be a passive state and are really just waiting to pounce on any opportunity to shift the focus back onto themselves. They don’t take the time to process what is being communicated and their goal is definitely not to increase understanding of the other, but to be understood by the other.

Of course it can also be draining to focus your sustained attention on those whose perspective is egocentric, who use the word ‘I’ about a million times over the course of an encounter, seemingly unaware that they are just one tiny speck in the universe rather than the center of it.

So narcissism impedes communication from two directions. It makes us want to bring the focus of the conversation back onto ourselves, and it makes it exhausting work to maintain our attention on the person who ardently desires this same focus. One way to experience a shift in the way you communicate is to stop viewing listening as a passive state and instead work on cultivating your active listening skills, a technique that all counselors learn to use early in their training and then spend the rest of their careers mastering.

Active listening is mainly concerned with the meaning underlying the content of the encounter, so that the words are really just the most visible piece of what is being communicated, much like how the part of the iceberg you can see above the water is tiny compared to what lies underneath. In active listening you are interested in body language, tone, inflection, pauses, slang, how specific words are utilized, grammar construction, back story, everything. Your goal becomes to filter all of this information through all of your preexisting knowledge in order to be able to mirror back, in your own words, what it is this person is really trying to say.

When your goal is to understand and relay the true meaning of an encounter listening stops being passive and it definitely stops being boring. You become intensely interested in a story that before may have seemed quite dull when you are situating this story within the larger context of a person’s life and using it as just one more data point in your endeavor to gain true understanding.

To make active listening work, which means making the other person feel heard, you have to align your external body language with this internal intention. Make sure you are turned towards the person who is speaking, make lots of eye contact, use head nods, eyebrow raises, and all of the other facial expressions that are in your repertoire. Don’t try to jump ahead in the conversation and don’t try to shift the focus back onto yourself. When you do paraphrase content make sure to leave space for the other person to either agree or disagree and be able to expand upon it.

Most people think that if they are the ones talking it means they are the ones in control, but counselors quickly learn that in the context of active listening this is patently untrue. While a counselor might say very little during an hour long session, he is the one at the rudder guiding the ship. What he chooses to mirror back and when he chooses to mirror it will determine the flow and content of the conversation.