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How Active Listening Can Improve Your Connection with Others


July 03, 2024

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Photography by Milles Studio/Stocksy United

Photography by Milles Studio/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW, ACSW, RDDP


by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW, ACSW, RDDP


Words come at us all day, but often, we don’t process their meaning. Depression can play a role in this. Learn to switch off your passive listening mode to strengthen your communication and relationships with others.

We all listen to one another every day, sometimes all day, especially if our job involves face-to-face time with the world. Despite this, few of us have mastered actively listening to one another.

Too often, we slip into passive listening mode, nodding along without engaging in what our conversation partner is communicating.

Refining the art of active listening is especially crucial when we’re depressed and struggling to listen to anything except our own thoughts, and when we love someone who’s battling depression.

Here’s a breakdown of how to introduce active listening into your life.

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What is active versus passive listening?

“We know that someone is ‘actively listening’ when they demonstrate that they’re engaged, care about what we have to say, and want to make sure that they understand what we’re saying,” said UK-based clinical psychologist Dr. Sarah Bishop.

“It involves activating the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate attention and focus, as well as the mirror neuron system, which allows us to empathize and understand others’ emotions,” she continues.

In contrast, as Topsie VandenBosch, LMSW, a licensed psychotherapist and emotional intelligence and psychological safety consult, explains, passive listening is everything active listening is not.

“Passive listening occurs when we’re distracted, busy, and unfocused on what’s being communicated to us,” said VandenBosch. “We often misunderstand what a person shares with us and are often not emotionally present.”

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But why is it so hard to stay present and active?

“Active listening demands intentional exertion,” said Bishop. “When we experience depression, our mental and emotional capacities are often strained and depleted; as a result, we may find ourselves with limited energy to actively engage in listening.”

“Consequently, this additional demand on our mental and emotional resources can intensify our feelings of distress and exacerbate our depressive states,” she added.

Don’t forget that it’s not just people with depression who may have a hard time with active listening — the world is full of distractions and stresses that drag people’s attention away. The hardest part isn’t identifying the problem, it’s summing up the energy to do something about it.

To minimize the effects of depression on your capacity to stay present in conversation, Bishop suggests:

  • prioritizing self-care
  • communicating your limitations in an open and honest way
  • practicing mindfulness
  • seeking support from loved ones and professional resources
  • engaging in regular self-care rituals
  • setting realistic expectations based on your day-to-day emotional state

Does it really matter if I’m present?

Yes, it really, really does.

When we’re depressed, isolation, numbness, and detachment feel all too alluring. We want to retreat, so we do, and our loved ones, work colleagues, and customer service folks wonder where we’ve gone.

“When someone engages in passive listening, they’re not actively processing the information being shared; this can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and a lack of empathy,” explains Bishop. “Passive listening can also make the speaker feel unheard and undervalued.”

Active listening reminds us, and the people around us, that we’re here — that the dark places lurking in the mind aren’t real. It also makes communicating with the world more straightforward by minimizing the chances of us misunderstanding someone’s intentions by not listening to their words.

Slipping into passivity also limits our ability to create genuine connections in daily life, the very thing that pulls us out of a depressive state.

“Active listening, on the other hand, promotes open communication, mutual understanding, and stronger bonds,” adds Bishop.

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The basic skills

So, we know it’s essential, but how do we do it?

Firstly, think about your face and body language. Our expressions are, well, very expressive; you speak just as much with your body as your face.

“Some key skills associated with active listening are nodding, eye contact, removing distractions from around you, asking clarifying questions, and summarizing what the other person said back to them to ensure that you heard them correctly,” said VandenBosch.

VandenBosch also advises “Maintaining open body language that’s welcoming and not closed off, in addition to allowing the person communicating with you to take their time in sharing their thoughts without rushing them.”

Avoiding slipping into passive listening mode

To prevent yourself from defaulting to passive listening, Bishop recommends:

  • Be mindful: Be aware of your listening habits and stay actively engaged.
  • Remove distractions: Minimize distractions that can divert your attention from the speaker.
  • Maintain eye contact: Maintain eye contact with the speaker to show you are fully attentive.
  • Avoid interrupting: Allow them to express themselves fully before interjecting with your thoughts or opinions.
  • Practice reflective listening: Practice reflective listening by paraphrasing or summarizing the speaker’s words.
  • Show empathy: Try to understand the speaker’s perspective and emotions. Put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge their feelings.
  • Reflect on the conversation: Consider how it has enhanced your understanding, strengthened relationships, or provided new insights.
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When is it OK to slip back into passive listening?

We cannot all be active listeners 24/7 because everyone would be absolutely exhausted.

It’s OK to tell someone you’re speaking to that you may not be an effective listener or communicator right now. You can table a conversation for later, take a moment to collect yourself, ask them to repeat their last sentence, or do whatever you need to help you refocus on the conversation.

Everyone gets distracted, and that’s OK. Just let people know so they’re not left wondering if you’re listening and you’re not tempted to fake it to appease them.

“Passive listening can be helpful for self-preservation in situations where active engagement may be emotionally overwhelming or physically draining,” said Bishop. “It allows you to step back and conserve your energy while still receiving information or being present in a conversation.”

The bottom line

No one becomes an attentive listener overnight, especially when we’re wrestling with depression at the same time. Conserve your energy, and don’t try to perfect the skill overnight — invest a little energy daily to make it an enduring habit.

Soon, you’ll find it easier to switch the default setting from passive to active.

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Medically reviewed on July 03, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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