ACTIVE LISTENING – Focused Attention and Understanding for a Deeper Connection

grayscale of woman and man talking each other

By: Adam Nisenson, LMFT, CSAT

(Certified Sex Addiction Therapist)

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. 

So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

–Larry King

A lot of my clients struggle with intimacy and connection with their partners or others they love. One of the simplest tools they forget to use is their ability to listen, connect, and validate their partner when having a conversation. Instead, they’re often thinking about what they want to say versus listening to what’s being said. This kind of high-quality responsive listening is what’s known as “active listening.”

Some might think the primary purpose of active listening is to understand what the speaker is saying, but there’s a second and equally important component and that’s to let the speaker know they’ve been fully heard. As an active listener, it’s your responsibility to let the speaker sense you are connecting with their words and doing so on a level that involves being patient and non-judgmental, where the objective is to build or enhance a relationship. And what’s more important to you and your partner than growing a relationship?

The Quality of Our Conversations

When you’re actively listening, you’re not doing so on impulse or in haste. You are being attentive. You’re not quickly sucking up the speaker’s words so you can respond. You’re not halfway listening to the other person because you’re distracted or are not interested in what the other person has to say. You’re not waiting for them to complete their thought so that you can have your say. You’re giving undivided, intentional attention. This is your gift to them.

Stephen R. Covey, author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, believes most people don’t actively listen and he offers a perceptive commentary on what active listening ISN’T in this one comment: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” says Covey.

If most of us don’t take the time to actively listen, what does that say about the quality of our conversations, our relationships? Active listening is a powerful and necessary communications dynamic. It’s being attentive on an emotional level. You are deliberating on what the speaker has to say. You are being thoughtful of the speaker before even trying to formulate a reply. 

Active listening builds strong relationships. It allows you to gain a deeper understanding of your lovers, friends, and colleagues – or even people you hardly know – while deepening your sense of empathy.

Most of us don’t fully appreciate that listening involves reflecting on what we hear and reacting without judgment, letting the speaker know with questions or gestures that we hear them, that we are interested in what they have to say, and are respectful by asking questions if we don’t understand or need clarity.

Not a Formula

Active listening isn’t a formula. It’s an art that requires sincerity and intention. It’s important to understand that learning to be a good listener means more than following a set of directions. You might be so focused on taking the right steps, that your responses come across as mechanical, insincere, or paying lip service. For instance, rather than repeating back or paraphrasing what the speaker said, try asking probing, open-ended questions, but do so when you’re not sure of the speaker’s meaning, not to gain their approval or prove to them you’re a good listener. Active listening is performed with the heart, especially with people close to you such as your spouse or intimate partner.

Active Listening Tips

  • Listen from the point of view of the speaker.
  • Don’t interrupt; wait until they are finished speaking before responding.
  • Make eye contact and show with other body language that you are focused only on them.
  • Don’t be distracted or try to listen or do something at the same time you’re listening.
  • Ask probing, thoughtful questions when you don’t understand.
  • Share your views and experiences if they deviate from those of the speaker, but do so in a neutral way, trying not to convince or argue your point.