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How To Actively Listen in Time for Holiday Gatherings

How well of a job do you think you do at actually hearing the people around you? Do you think you listen well? Most of us are passive listeners. We often hear just enough to get the gist of what the person in front of us is saying, but not enough to be fully present. Many people have obstacles to actively listening. Active listening is often something we just don’t think about or…

- We don’t have experience or modeling of what it looks like to be fully present, making eye contact and not letting our thoughts drift off somewhere else during a conversation.

- Men in particular often listen long enough to find out what the problem is, and what action they may need to take. Additionally, men tend to get lost in details so they stop listening a short time into the conversation.

- We have our own agenda so we listen more for a pause to insert our thoughts, feelings, wants or needs.

Given our propensity for living (and speaking) at a rapid clip, conversations can lead to misunderstandings where one party or the other feels not heard as their conversation partner is unable to be fully present and actively listening.

In short, if communication is the lifeblood of relationships, and we are showing up only half listening, it explains in part some of our relational difficulties. This can increase exponentially when we are immersed in family gatherings and now adding more people to the equation.

So how can we make holiday family gatherings more pleasant, less stressful and reduce hurt feelings and misunderstandings?

Practice actively listening vs. passively listening. Another way to think about this is passive listening is sort of like hearing a breeze blow past you. You are aware of it but it’s just noise. Actively listening requires you to be fully present (mentally/emotionally) with the speaker (whoever that may be in the moment) engaging by really listening to their message; both spoken and unspoken. When you are present and engaged, you can hear what their words are saying, and also notice their tone and body language. Communication consists of all three.

Here’s some tips to make this happen in a way that won’t likely feel too daunting:

- Practice First. If you live with a partner, spouse, roommate or kids at your house, begin to practice actively listening. Stand face to face with the person/ speaker whenever possible. Don’t be looking at your phone or thinking about your next task… focus on that person and that conversation only.

- Eye Contact is Key. Making eye contact – not in a staring creepy way-but rather in a I am here present with you kind of way, ensures that your person knows you are actually fully there, ready to engage with them. It sends the message I see you and I care about what you have to say.

- Sweep away intrusive thoughts. If your mind starts to wander about how many helpings of your Aunt’s apple pie you will have, then just mentally sweep that thought away so that you can return to being present.

- Reflect back what you hear. One of the ways the person we are engaging with knows we are hearing them is when we have the ability to reflect back what we are hearing. This is gold for relationships in general so begin to practice it now with your sweetie, your kiddos, neighbors, coworkers and friends. Think of yourself as feeding back what you just heard. It may sound like, “So it sounds like your job is really stressful and challenging right now.”

- Ask for Clarification when Needed. If you are actively listening and something the speaker is saying feels or sounds confusing, it is ok to interrupt to say, “ I really want to understand this, are you saying …” That enhances relationships because the speaker feels you care enough to pause the conversation for clarity so that the conversation can continue in a meaningful way.

While holiday gatherings can often feel stressful, they are made easier and even more enjoyable when we can show up choosing to engage with the people around us, and really hearing what they are saying. This is a great relational skill in general that can enhance your primary and other relationships and that can serve to make your gatherings more enjoyable.

This holiday season, give the gift of your presence and listening ear. While you can’t wrap it in a box, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

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