The answer: statistically you’re probably alright, but you could always be more intentional about your listening. Talking and listening is like breathing; we do it so often, we don’t often assess our own performance as active listeners. The interesting thing is that everyone has different standards for good communication. What rubs someone the wrong way might be completely acceptable for someone else. So, think about what you value in a good listener, and in the meantime, consider my own takes:
- Forced eye contact is so passé.
I’ve always thought this is one of those things that particularly affect people who are on the spectrum. Why are people so obsessed with staring into each other’s eyes, anyway? It’s entirely possible to be engaged, thoughtful, and responsive without it. Similarly, it’s also possible to look someone in the eyes and absorb nothing they are saying. In fact, making eye contact may actually make you worse at communicating. So, you can do it if that’s what you’re comfortable with, but if not? Don’t sweat it.
- Silence is okay, actually.
Did you know that Japanese speakers tend to tolerate longer silences than their American counterparts? Gaps in conversations are seen as time to think and reflect, rather than an awkward silence to fill. Use it as an opportunity to process the other speaker’s tone, word choice, and meaning before responding. Maybe we would all be better listeners if we weren’t rushing to say something next! In any case, try to embrace the quiet moments. And if it is getting awkward? You can always acknowledge it with a joke.
- There’s a time and place for giving advice.
It’s natural to want to offer solutions when people talk about their problems. But our first instincts aren’t always right for the moment. Maybe instead of advice, the other person just wants to feel heard. If you’re not sure what to say, you can always ask: “Do you want advice, or just for me to listen?”
- The phone thing.
Look...sometimes people are going to look at their phones while talking to you. Maybe you will look at your phone while listening to someone. It’s a thing. It happens. In her book You’re Not Listening, Kate Murphy likens checking your phone to a smoker nervously patting their pockets for a pack of cigarettes, addicted to distraction. Well, you know what, Kate?! I... politely disagree with this assessment. Phones are tools, and they can enhance or detract from listening depending on how you use them. Some people use their phones to stim, which helps them focus. One of my friends uses it to take notes on what others are saying. I use my phone to show my conversation partners relevant pictures and info. Phones can be used to start conversations, not just end them. Think about that the next time you reach for your phone.