How I’m Learning To Be An Active Listener
I came out of the womb talking.
Okay, not talking, but screaming. My mom recalls me instantly making it known to the world that I was here with a loud, “WAAAAAAAH!” And from that day forward, I was a talker.
Apparently I could recite Ancient Chinese poetry at the ripe age of three years old (or was it younger, according to my mom?). I was the chattiest kid my parents knew. When I watch home videos, I’m astounded at just how much I’d blabber away to anyone and everyone who would listen—and in perfect Mandarin Chinese.
I always thought my desire to talk and be vocal was a gift. I could talk my way out of things. And into things. People were impressed that I was so eloquent at such a young age. It was challenging for me to transition from Chinese, my first language, to English—but I did it, and excelled at it.
English was always my favorite subject in school. I was part of a debate team in high school. I also wrote for the school paper. I had lots of thoughts and ideas, and I wanted the world to know these inner workings of my mind.
I never had the chance to slow down. I thought that if I wasn’t talking or making my opinions known, I was being passive and quiet. I wanted to come across as assertive and full of ideas. I wanted people to take me seriously. I didn’t want to perpetuate that stereotype of a quiet, passive Chinese-American girl.
My dad, unlike me, is incredibly stoic. He almost never talks, unless directly addressed or when he needs to. He listens. He thinks. He observes. He rationalizes. He absorbs. I used to get really upset when he’d tell me, “Belinda, you need to listen more and talk less.”
I took it personally, as if he didn’t want me to be vocal. Was he afraid of a woman challenging him or others? Did he want me to be the stereotypical quiet Asian-American woman I so feared I’d somehow become? I used to defy him or anyone who would tell me to slow down and listen more.
On Learning To Listen
But once I finally took their advice to heart, over the course of the years, I realized—listening is like a superpower. I used to be so caught up in my own thoughts and what I’d say next, that I wouldn’t take the time to process what was being said to me.
“What’s your name?” I’d ask, focusing on the impression I was making, and not the person I was addressing. Five minutes later, I’d forget their name, but feel too embarrassed to ask again. I would have conversations with people, nodding politely and acting like I was listening, but would be too internally focused on myself and what I was going to say next. I wasn’t actually listening at all.
Once I let this go and listened—and I mean actually listened—I realized that, to be the best communicator possible, you must listen. I questioned how I went my whole life not really practicing this vital skill.
Listening unlocked a whole new world for me. Suddenly, I was far more interested in people than I ever was before. I also felt less anxious, because I was less focused on what I was going to say next, and was actually caring about what was being said to me.
I was able to ask better follow-up questions and engage the person far better. Trust me, people can tell when you’re really listening versus when you’re just waiting for your turn to talk. It’s a gamechanger to be an active listener—to really take in another person’s words and find ways to augment them, not talk over them.
How To Be A Better Listener
My biggest tip to fellow talkers like myself is: actively listen. Tune out your inner voices and anxieties. Focus on the person speaking. Look them in the eyes, nod and show them that you’re following, respond only when they are done speaking, ask follow-up questions, don’t change the topic or make the conversation about you (unless it’s expected), and just be courteous.
I used to let my anxieties outweigh my ability to be courteous and a good listener. I didn’t value listening because I thought people only valued talkers—and since I had a natural gift for talking, why not use it?
I realize now that I still have my gift, but I can use it in a much more effective and efficient way. I can give others, maybe those who are a bit quieter or more passive, a chance to shine. A chance to convey a point, be heard, and feel good about themselves. Then I can augment that conversation with whatever insights and comments I have.
It’s nice, sometimes, to get out of your head and to just listen. To appreciate a good story, to hear someone share a personal account, and to show others that you can validate them through listening to them.
Sometimes, there’s no better way to tell someone you value them, agree with them, support them, or are interested in them than simply hearing them out. What do you think? I’m listening…
Belinda Cai is a multimedia journalist who frequently writes about lifestyle, social and environmental justice, and identity and culture. She has a master’s in journalism and communications from the University of Southern California, and hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. When she’s not writing, she’s Wikipedia-spiraling, staying active, enjoying nature, and thrifting. Check out her website and Instagram.