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Wish you were better at active listening? Here’s how to unlock one of the most potent conversational tools.
When we’re involved in a conversation, we may often forget that one of the most powerful engagement tools we have is silence.
Often, we’re eager to fill up space in our social interactions by talking and chatter. We may even find silence is…well, a little unnerving.
So what do we do instead? We discuss the time, the weather, current events, and “thank goodness it’s Friday.” This is often merely conversational noise meant to make others and ourselves more comfortable because silence feels awkward.
Yet, in silence there is power. We learn more by active listening with intent. In fact, silence is integral to engagement. If we want to engage and truly connect with someone, we must do more than talk and hear; we must learn active listening.
We’ve all heard the guidelines for active listening skills:
But it’s entirely possible to do all those actions without really connecting with our conversation partner. We may think we’re practicing active listening by hearing what others are saying. We might nod along, even mimic their facial expressions, or reiterate all the conversational points back to them.
Are we present with them in the moment? Do they have our full attention? Are we holding the space together? Are we unlocking the meaning of the dialogue? Did we set our intention to truly meet the other person and get the most out of the interaction?
For those who aren’t familiar with “engagement,” the concept may seem like just a more intense way of paying attention. What does it mean to really engage? As discussed in the book, Transformed! The Science of Spectacular Living, engagement is more than listening:
Are you engaged at work? As a parent? With your spouse or partner? When you take the train to work or when you go to church? When you jog in the morning and when you read a book at night? Are you engaged in your overall life project—not just a work project with a tight deadline or an interesting home project?
If you’re like most people, you’re scratching your head and wondering what we’re really asking. Some of you may believe that engaging means paying attention. You listen to every word your husband says (and could even repeat it back). Some of you may think it means focusing on the task at hand. You concentrate on your work assignments and don’t allow your attention to wander.
These are all forms of engagement, but they are probably not full engagement because you have feelings, urges, and yearnings that you aren’t bringing to bear.
Engaging is a deeper and wider concept than just listening or concentrating, though these are important elements of engaging…. Understand that to be truly engaged, your yearning and your emotions must be involved.
To be engaged with others, we need to allow our emotions to surface and show. We don’t avoid topics because they’re too in-depth or too personal. We jump into those meaty, juicy topics and speak the truth.
To be engaged is to be passionate about the situation—it means we care about the person we’re talking to. We understand what they’re saying, and we empathize. We’re focused intently, speaking honestly and openly. We’re aware of WHAT we’re saying and how it might affect the other party. We’re also mindful of what the other party is saying and how it’s causing us to feel and react. Engagement is energizing, moving, and powerful. It is brought by a sense of fulfillment and purpose—working toward a vision.
This level of conversation probably doesn’t sound like typical elevator banter or watercooler chatter. This isn’t casual involvement. It’s sharing a real, powerful connection. That said, we can still “go deep” with casual encounters. Imagine the relationships we would build and the social ties we would strengthen if we engaged in authentic conversation all the time.
Once in a while, we might run into someone who really engages with us—the cab driver who asks us about our feelings on a topic, the barista who genuinely wants to know more about our day. We’ve all had the experience where we’re suddenly involved in a meaningful conversation with a new person and might wonder how we ended up there. In fact, when we aren’t used to it, this level of genuine interest may feel unnerving or a little uncomfortable.
But if we push through that discomfort, we might find ourselves with a new social connection. It can feel strange at first because most of us are so used to operating in the shallow end of the engagement pool. We aren’t practicing the art of active listening, so we’re literally out of practice when it comes to building those ties.
When we really engage with others, we’re our most authentic. We’re honest with them and with ourselves. It doesn’t mean we’re always saying what they want to hear or we think they want to hear. We might be saying exactly the opposite—and that’s perfectly okay. Conflict is part of conversation. When we disagree and express it, we’re growing towards a more precise understanding of each other.
Active listening and engagement also don’t mean we’re filling up space or biding our time until we get to share our next thought. We’ve all been in conversations with someone who seems to be waiting for us to finish so they can share. It feels rushed and inauthentic. When we’re truly engaged, we’re present and in the moment. We’re focused on what’s being said, not playing out the next step of the conversation.
It’s been said conversation is an art, and it truly is. Deep and meaningful dialogue—real engagement—requires give and take. It requires sharing and listening, knowing when to open your heart to give, and know when to hold your heart open to receive. Like a painter or a musician, we must refine and hone our craft. We must practice active listening to become better engagers.
How many times have you been part of a great conversation where thoughts were flowing? It’s almost like a dance with the other person. When you’re truly engaged and connected, it comes easily and freely. We may even receive a little pleasure boost or rush because engagement feels so good.
Similarly, silence is a powerful tool, yet we wield it as a weapon at times instead of an instrument. When we find ourselves giving someone the cold shoulder or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior, we’re misusing and weaponizing the power of silence.
Because silence is such a powerful tool, it instantly conveys a feeling. We’ve all been in a meeting when a topic was presented someone didn’t like. What do they do? They sit back, tighten their lips and even fold their arms across their chest. They’re literally closing themselves off right in front of the group. They’re putting up their shield, ready to fight with disengagement.
On the other hand, when someone’s listening and engaged, their eyes light up! Suddenly their arms are unfolded and relaxed. They might turn toward the other speaker, lean in, and even mirror their body language. Active listening involves energy. When we respond with a positive silent presence, we’re also tapping into the power of silence. Instead of using it as a weapon, we’re using it as a tool—think of it as a basket—to catch, carry and hold the conversation.
We all want to be seen and held in positive regard. We want to be listened to. When we offer positive listening company to another person, we’re meeting these important, nearly universal yearnings—to be seen and heard. We’re lifting them up. We’re engaging with them, and consequently, they will also become more engaged back. This reciprocity is the very foundation of great conversation!
So, if we’re hoping to connect with those in our lives more deeply, if we would like to have more confidence, a stronger presence, and even become a better leader, practice the art of silence. Learn active listening skills and truly hear what the other person says. Don’t work to fill the silence. Simply be present and aware in the moment.
For more ways to discover personal power, we offer many of our development courses online. Discover new insights and opportunities for growth. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to bring out your best.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.