Some of you might not know that in addition to being a triathlon coach I am also a certified health coach. Becoming a health coach was not very difficult for me, as my study materials very closely mimicked the information I gained earning my personal training certification years ago. But there was one vital section that very much resonated with me and helped me to become a better coach (and wife, mom, friend, daughter, etc) by encouraging me to focus on an area of needed growth.

Supporting clients/athletes as a coach starts with helping gauge their readiness for their stated goal. This requires that you are an active listener. 

It is clear to you all that I always have plenty to say. And although this has always been the case, I have always sincerely loved hearing others speak as well. But, when given the opportunity to reflect on whether or not I was good at it, I realized I had some work to do in consistently listening to people. And if you know me at all you know that I not only rise up to a challenge, but I actually truly love to take them on. 

According to a Psychology Today article by Kristen Fuller, MD, hearing is a passive, physical act that requires one sense and has to do with the perception of sound. It does not rely on concentration. Hearing is like collecting data; we hear sounds and words all day long, even if we are not paying attention to them.

Listening is a voluntary act, a mental, active process that requires multiple senses. Merriam-Webster defines listening as the “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” You can hear sounds and words without having to listen or focus on what you are hearing. Active listening requires curiosity, motivation, purpose, and effort. When you are an active listener you attempt to internalize and understand what you are hearing to connect with the other person and participate in a meaningful conversation. Passive listeners are disconnected, distracted, and inattentive. This type of listening usually means that you already have an opinion formed on the situation or person. It is not a healthy way to form relationships. 

Do you only hear others? Or do you actively listen? And why does all of this matter? 

All humans desire to be seen and heard. But being an active listener not only is a gift you can bestow onto others. There are many ways it benefits your own mental health. These can include: 

  • Creating strong and genuine friendships
  • Understanding and exchanging knowledge (not just information)
  • Being open to and fully digesting constructive criticism and guidance
  • Sharing memories
  • Passing on stories and ideas to the next generation
  • Resolving conflicts and creating better solutions for the future

So, how do we gift the gift to ourselves and others of being an active listener? 

Ask questions

We all know what it is like to share something with someone, and their response is “okay” or “oh”. It feels defeating and is obvious they are not listening or not interested in engaging in the conversation. Active listening requires asking open-ended questions and genuinely being curious about the conversation. When someone shares something with you, take it upon yourself to learn more by asking thoughtful questions. By asking who/what/where/when/how questions pertain to what the other individual is talking about demonstrates that you are listening and want to learn more. 

A good way to practice this is by being open to thinking differently. Put your own ideas and biases aside for the moment to truly focus on what the other person is saying. If you disagree ask them to “tell you more” instead of immediately getting defensive of writing off the conversation as an argument. 

Wait to speak

As humans, we simply listen just so we can speak. We love to hear ourselves talk, inlacing often interrupting others before they are finished speaking. To be a good active listener, we must wait until the other individual is done talking and sharing their ideas. We do this by relying on cues that someone is done speaking. This comes in the forms of non-verbal cues or listening to them close a sentence or a thought. Think of listening as paying attention to learn. Concentrate on the words being spoken and be aware of how the words are spoken. We should take a moment to pause before we share our thoughts and/or opinions with others.

Stay focused

I believe this is the biggest hurdle to listening in our current culture. Being focused on the conversation means that you have to block out other thoughts and sounds out from your mind to pay attention to the words being spoken. Staying present in the conversation can be challenging but putting away your phone and limiting other distractions are vital to helping you focus on the present conversation.

Active listening is important for the foundation of our human needs: to connect to, serve, and belong with others. When you practice all of the above to grow in active listening, you also simultaneously learn how to better connect with yourself. Listening to your thoughts and staying focused are vital tools in improving your overall well being. And if you are an athlete your goal setting capabilities and performance can benefit from the self trust that is cultivated through this process as well. When you can truly listen to others you have the chance to learn some about yourself. You have the chance to keep growing. 

So when you have the opportunities to listen this holiday season (and beyond), take them. Ask questions, even if you aren’t especially interested in the topic, or maybe even disagree. Wait to speak. Put your phone down and minimize distractions. 

We can have the exciting chance to open our minds to think differently, or to give someone else the gift of being truly seen. These are true gifts of the season.