A white-haired bearded man sitting in a restaurant and listening to someone talk illustrates how to improve active listening

Do you listen more than you talk? What’s your primary goal when you communicate? What can you learn about listening from an octopus?

It probably comes as no surprise that listening well is important. Active listening is a specific skill that’s invaluable in all aspects of life, and it’s part of the practice of Verbal Judo—a set of techniques that help you handle any tense situation calmly. 

Read more for George Thompson’s threefold advice on how to improve active listening and communicate more effectively as a result.

Active Listening in Verbal Judo

One significant Verbal Judo technique is to put as much effort into your listening as you do into your talking. Thompson advises using a technique called active listening. This kind of listening involves not only listening purposefully to the other person, but staying open to what they have to say and communicating (verbally and non-verbally) that you’re understanding. In Verbal Judo, Thompson shares practical advice on how to improve active listening so you can communicate more effectively.

(Shortform note: Experts consider listening an active, rather than passive, skill: one where you use verbal and nonverbal communication to make everyone feel heard. But active listening isn’t natural or comfortable for everyone. Often, neurotypical people learn to make direct eye contact, sit still, nod, and respond with facial expressions when they listen. That’s not necessarily true for neurodivergent people, whose brains develop, learn, or process information in ways that aren’t considered “typical.” They don’t necessarily show that they’re listening in the same way, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged. Experts say we should learn each other’s communication styles and body language so everyone feels understood in the way they communicate.)

1. Ask Them to Explain 

Going into a tense conversation, you might have some context to work with. But, when you need to know how someone is thinking or feeling, ask them! Thompson explains that active listening can involve asking open-ended questions about what’s happening, what their opinions are, and how they’d like the problem to be solved. As you listen, try to do so without jumping to conclusions or being influenced by preconceived notions.

2. Ask Whether You’re Understanding Correctly

Active listening doesn’t require intuiting what the other person means: When you state a person’s complaint back to them, you can also ask if you’re understanding correctly. This question gives you a practical way to ensure you know what’s happening. And it clearly shows the other person that you’re trying to understand them. This can help them dial things back: They’ll still be frustrated or angry, but they’ll be more likely to cooperate with you to resolve the argument or problem. 

3. Make It Obvious That You’re Listening

Another crucial part of active listening is letting the other person know you’re really hearing them. Thompson argues that appearing to listen closely might be even more important than actually listening closely in de-escalating a tense situation. He recommends using your body language—like making direct eye contact or nodding your head—to show that you’re listening. Or use phrases—like “I understand,” “That makes sense,” or “I see”—to communicate that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying.

(Shortform note: Listening well takes a lot of work because we have to step outside our perspective to do it. Carl Rogers, one of the psychologists who coined the term “active listening,” explained that listening can make someone else feel less alone and less stuck. Asking questions, clarifying what the other person says, and affirming that you hear them, as Thompson suggests, can help you see things from their point of view. But to stay focused on that perspective, you have to resist the temptation to offer your interpretation, which Rogers noted often comes from “[y]our own needs to see the world in certain ways.” In other words, the goal isn’t to find an opportunity to share your opinion, but to understand the other person better.)

Do Octopuses Practice Active Listening, Too?

Using body language and other forms of nonverbal communication is an important part of social interactions—whether you’re a human or an octopus. The Soul of an Octopus author Sy Montgomery notes that research suggests that these animals are incredibly intelligent, with their own emotions and personalities. (Some experts estimate octopuses are as intelligent as a three-year-old child.) Scientists say that while octopuses were once thought to be strictly solitary creatures, they’re quite social and sometimes very confrontational with each other. Experts say that octopuses seem to use their color, posture, and arm movements of their eight arms to communicate with each other

Octopuses change the color and brightness of their skin as a signal to one another, adopting a dark color when they intend to confront one another and choosing a paler color when they intend to retreat. They also seem to make themselves larger and taller to send a message, though scientists aren’t sure yet what that message is. But experts say that the way octopuses use and interpret body language seems effective at helping the animals resolve conflict and find a way to get along—just as humans use body language to show that they’re paying attention and understanding what others are saying. 
How to Improve Active Listening: 3 Tips From Verbal Judo

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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