Why Active Listening Could Be the Most Important Skill You Learn in 2021

Another new year has come around, and with it countless people will be making new year’s resolutions. From starting a new diet, to creating a new exercise regime, to remembering sunscreen every day, whether you stick to them religiously or not resolutions have the ability to give us a much-needed jumpstart to the new year. While resolutions that improve your physical well-being are important and have their place (as a dermatologist, I’ll never argue against people commiting to wearing sunscreen more often) I challenge you to also make a commitment to the way you interact with others through improving your ability to actively listen. At my dermatology practice, I consistently remind everybody on my staff the importance of active listening when interacting with our patients, and hold myself to the same standard whether it’s during a serious consultation or simply a yearly checkup. Noticing the way a computer screen was affecting my ability to actively listen to each of my patients, I did away with it in favor of a handwritten system and have since received numerous comments on how well-cared for and attended to my patients have felt. Actively listening to the people you are interacting with is one of the most sincere ways you can show respect to those you interact with.

What is active listening?

So what is active listening? Defined, it is the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond thoughtfully. By actively listening, you pay attention, fully concentrating, engaging, and absorbing what someone is saying to you. The problem that many of us encounter in communication is the fact that our minds can easily wander in our own heads, falling back into the past or preparing what will be said next. One of the easiest examples we’ve probably all encountered is when you are introducing yourself to someone new. They tell you their name, but while they are doing so you begin to think about saying your name next. Suddenly, you realize that you haven’t actually learned their name and must embarrassingly ask again or try to go the rest of the time avoiding saying it in the first place.

If this rings a bell, know that you are certainly not the only person to have experienced it. Listening is often an overlooked aspect of communication, with people so focused on speaking and sharing their own experiences that they neglect to stay attuned to their current situation of listening. This is why active listening is so important — it’s the only way to stay truly present in communication. While this may seem like something people are naturally good or bad at, it is in fact a skill. Like learning to ride a bike or being able to swim, active listening can be honed and improved with practice.

Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding such that the speaker knows you’re truly interested in their ideas, concerns, and opinions. It involves giving the speaker your undivided attention, withholding judgment, and being mindful of your nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions and body language. You don’t jump ahead to think about solutions while the speaker is still talking, and refrain from getting defensive. On the other side of the coin, passive listening can be just as detrimental to communication. While you may not be interrupting, you are also not providing feedback or asking questions to truly understand the speaker and where they are coming from.

Why active listening is so important

Earn the trust and respect of your peers

In a 2003 study conducted by York University psychologist Faye Doell, she identified two different ways of listening: “listening to understand” and “listening to respond.” According to her study, those who “listen to understand” reported greater satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships than others. Try to reflect on a recent time you were having a conversation with someone. Were your intentions to understand where the other person was coming from, or when it comes down to it were you just waiting for your chance to respond? Next time you are in a similar situation, try to resist the urge to think about what to say next. Instead, wait until the other person has finished speaking to form your response. It takes time to truly understand someone’s meaning, and you will draw better conclusions by waiting to find what’s behind the words. Doing so will do worlds of good not only for your personal relationships, but your professional ones as well. The doctor’s office can be a scary and stressful place, and I have found that by showing my patients that I am attentively and actively listening to them, I earn their trust and make them more likely to speak to me openly, better facilitating the doctor-patient relationship. In a normal office space a similar kind of pressure can form, and by being the person who gives others the space to communicate fully and openly, you can become a valuable asset. If you make your co-workers or employees feel valued you inspire confidence, and they will be more likely to come to you with new ideas and include you in collaborative projects.

Understand issues and formulate better solutions

When you practice active listening, you are able to gain a better understanding of problems and subsequently form more comprehensive and accurate solutions. We’ve all experienced the exact moment in a conversation with someone when we realize we had gone off on a tangent in our own brains and have neglected to pay attention to what the other person was saying. While this is okay when you are having a casual conversation with friends, it can be much more embarrassing and potentially detrimental when it occurs in a professional setting. I can say that while I was using a digital note-keeping system my back was often turned from the patient, and as a result I was finding it difficult to not only remain conscious of every word they were saying, but also identify the subtle nonverbal clues that can be vital to giving a proper diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, if you neglect to use active listening while in an important meeting, you may leave it to find there are gaps in your knowledge and as a result are not able to present a solution that best reflects your professional ability. Through active listening you can better get to the core of the communication, and as a result improve your problem-solving skills.

Active listening can help you diffuse conflict

Conflict is an inevitable occurrence in life, so rather than “how do I avoid all conflict” the better question is “how do I diffuse conflict when it arises to the benefit of all parties involved?” Conflict can often bring with it defensiveness, but one can avoid such emotions when both parties feel that they have been heard or understood. By demonstrating active listening, you make the person you are in conflict with feel that they have made their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously, and as a result the chances of landing a resolution is high. Even if you don’t always agree with others’ opinions, by demonstrating active listening you show that you are open to their experiences and perspectives. I am a voluntary associate professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, and there have certainly been times when me and my colleagues at the university have not agreed. However, I make a point to make sure that no matter what the disagreement is, the other person knows that I am listening and understand where they are coming from. In addition to this bringing conflict to a quick and effective resolution, it is also much more likely to be longer lasting, and encourages discourse that is essential to medical advancements.

Improving productivity through deepening relationships

When you think of the word “communication” the way you speak to people may come to mind, but good communication is just as much about listening as it is about speaking. From Ernest Hemingway to Lee Iacocca, some of the world’s greatest minds have expounded on the value of listening over talking. While active listening can help you with the traditional definition of productivity — i.e. getting more done in less time — it can also help you be more productive in every interaction you have, finding the value and getting the most out of each one. I became a doctor because I wanted to help people, but I know that oftentimes the way I can help people most is not through the medical advice I provide, but through the listening ear I lend. Whether it be a patient experiencing a scary diagnosis or one of my nurses who is having a tough day, by fully investing in each and every interaction I have I make the most out of them.

How to improve your active listening skills

Make eye contact

One of the biggest detriments to active listening that my electronic record system caused was it forced me to turn away and break eye contact with my patients. Eye contact is one of the most important aspects of effective communication, and if you are scanning the room, gazing out the window, or starting at a computer or phone screen, the odds are you are not giving the conversation your full and undivided attention. When you look someone in the eyes, you indicate to them that you are attentive and interested in what they have to say. Shyness and uncertainty among other emotions may prevent them from returning the eye contact, but continue to look at them, even if they don’t look at you. The next time you are in a conversation with someone, put aside potential distractions, and look them in the eyes.

Give a relaxed attentiveness

While eye contact is one of the most important aspects of active listening, it doesn’t mean that simply by making eye contact you are doing so. In fact, staring fixedly at someone can be distracting and off putting so feel free to look away and carry on as normal once you have dropped the other distractions. Instead, try to use the eye contact to mentally screen out other distractions such as noise or other background activities. Additionally, try not to let yourself become distracted by mannerisms or accents the other person may have, or your own thoughts and feelings. The importance and attention is placed on the conversation itself.

Remain open-minded

In order to truly actively listen, you must put aside your own ideas and biases. Remember, the person you are interacting with is doing their best to use language to try to interpret the thoughts and feelings going on inside their brain, and you can only find out what those are by listening. For example, if a sentence catches you and you begin down your own train of thought, you may not entirely comprehend the point they are trying to get across, and as a result jump to conclusions that aren’t accurate. Instead, take yourself and your own thoughts out of the equation, and try to singularly focus on understanding what the other person is trying to say.

Visualize for comprehension

When you are listening, try to be mindful of not spending your time planning what to say next — listening and rehearsing at the same time isn’t possible. Instead, try to think only about what the person is saying. If you are finding the subject matter dull or hard to follow, a good tip is to allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. This can mean different things for different people depending on how you learn, so whether it be a literal picture within your mind or something more abstract, by staying focused and making a strong effort to comprehend you can better your active listening skill with time.

Hold your tongue

When you interrupt someone mid-conversation, you send a plethora of messages, from “I’m more important than you” to “I don’t really care what you think.” To gain full comprehension of a conversation, wait until the other person has completely finished speaking before responding. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t voice your opinions or make counter-arguments, but you should only do so once the speaker has said their peace. Also, it is important to remember that we all think and speak at different rates, but if even you find yourself to be a quick thinker and agile talker, it is still your responsibility to respect those who may be more thoughtful or have trouble expressing themselves.

Ask questions for clarification and understanding

Just because you are refraining from interrupting, doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to ask for clarification. Indeed, asking follow-up questions is a surefire way to indicate to those speaking that you were listening and paying attention. However, try to wait until the speaker has finished before asking the questions. If you have been using the other techniques and truly actively listening, you should be able to recall the question without having to interrupt them. Additionally, make sure the questions you ask are relevant to the topic at hand. If your question does lead the speaker down a different tangent, taking the initiative to guide them back to the original conversation will indicate to them that you are truly interested in what they were saying.

Develop your empathy

In an excellent moment of cross-training, by working on your active listening you can also develop the equally important skill of empathy. I could devote thousands of words to the ways in which empathy improves connection and communication, especially as a doctor, but at its simplest terms empathy is putting yourself in the other persons’ place and allowing yourself to feel what it is like to them at that moment. Humans who connect often mirror each other, and by truly feeling the speaker’s sadness, joy, or fear when they are expressing them, you will express it in your facial expressions and words, and make them feel more understood as a result.

Remember to pay attention to nonverbal clues

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the majority of communication is nonverbal. In fact, most experts agree that anywhere from 70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal, which is why things like eye contact and mirroring on your part is so important. On the other side of the coin, learning to identify nonverbal clues is one way you can improve your active listening skills. While it may not technically be “listening,” paying attention to a person’s body language and cues when they are speaking is a vital way to gain insight as to how they feel about the subject they are speaking about. Have they suddenly started gesticulating wildly? They must feel a lot of passion. Did they begin to avert their eyes and slouch their shoulders inward? They may be a bit embarrassed, and proceeding with tact will make them feel more at ease.

This new year, I challenge you to make a resolution that will benefit both you and those who make their way through your life. Working on your active listening skills can allow you to develop deeper relationships, avoid misunderstandings, become a better judge of people, and add more meaning to your own life. While it takes more energy than simply tuning out or participating the bare minimum in a conversation, the value it creates is well work the effort put into developing it.

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Dr. Tim Ioannides is the founder of Treasure Coast Dermatology located in Port Saint Lucie, Florida