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Five Ways to Show Active Listening During Conversations with Americans

Are you listening? Then you need to show me.

Showing active listening is absolutely essential in American culture.

Like it or not, when we are speaking a language that isn’t our first, we often have to show other people that we understand them.

In my experience learning Spanish, I found that my listening skills have always been stronger than my speaking skills.

Even though I’m now fluent in Spanish, I often feel like I need to prove my ability to understand the language.

One of the reasons that I focus so heavily on conversation skills, communication strategies, and transition expressions is that they often prove that your language ability is as strong as it is.

If the other person hasn’t learned another language, they may not realize that your mistakes do NOT mean that you don’t understand the language. Mistakes are just normal and natural.

If you’ve ever been in the middle of an interaction and you got the sense that the other person was doubting that you actually understood them, it may actually be that you didn’t show them that you were listening.

In American culture, we expect people to participate actively in the conversation.

Many non-native speakers assume that this means that they need to constantly be talking.

Especially if you’re a little introverted or shy, it may feel a little intense to always be the one participating in the conversation.

But I have good news for you! If you’ve ever felt tongue-tied or stuck in the conversation because you’re not really sure what you should be saying or what you should be contributing, you can relax.

Many of these active listening techniques that I’m going to talk about don’t actually require you to speak in words.

That’s right: You don’t have to speak in a full sentence in order to show the person that you’re listening.

In fact, you don’t even have to say anything!

While there are a lot of techniques that you can use in order to show active listening, we’re going to discuss just a few examples to keep it simple.

So let’s talk about five active listening techniques that you can use in order to show that you’re engaged in the conversation, that you understand what the other person is saying, and that you want to hear more.

Making Eye Contact During the Conversation

The first active listening technique that we’re going to look at is making eye contact.

Believe it or not, making eye contact can be quite challenging for many non-native speakers.

Depending on your cultural background, making eye contact can be seen as a little aggressive or even a little bit rude.

In some cultures, you show deference to another person by not constantly looking them in the eye.

However, if you’re interacting with an American, you want to look them in the eye. ?

We expect a person who is actively listening to us to look us in the eye to show that they’re paying attention.

We connect with people through this maintained eye contact.

You probably have noticed that when you watch videos you like the videos where the other person is looking directly into the camera.

So I want you to practice maintaining eye contact when you’re having a conversation.

Yes, you can look off to the side or look around at some point, but you always want to return your gaze back to the other person.

Keep in mind that eye contact does not mean staring. It’s not an intense look into the other person’s eyes.

It’s a little more relaxed: you’re just gazing at the other person, listening to what they have to say, and showing them that you care by maintaining eye contact.

If you start watching American news, American television, or even movies, you’ll notice that the characters or the broadcasters always look the other person in the eye.

Eye contact is how we show respect for the other person and how we show that we’re listening.

Nodding Your Head While Listening

Next, I want to talk about another active listening technique that doesn’t require you to speak: nodding your head.

Like with eye contact, I encourage you to watch native English speakers interacting and pay attention to how much they’re nodding their heads.

(Nodding your head is when you lower and raise your head just slightly and very briefly. You may nod only once or a few times in a row.)

In some cultures, nodding your head may be a little bit more than it is in the United States.

In other cultures, you may not nod your head at all, or nodding your head may actually mean something else. (Here’s an interesting look at different gestures across cultures.)

But in American culture, nodding your head signals “yes” as well as that you’re listening.

If you notice when someone’s being interviewed, whether that’s an interview on YouTube or a news program, the other person is probably nodding their head in order to show interest in what the other person has said and also sometimes to agree.

If you want to encourage the other person to keep talking and show them that you’re listening, you need to nod your head occasionally.

I want to remind you that nodding your head constantly probably will signal that you don’t understand.

Think about it: if you’re constantly nodding your head up and down rapidly, the other person may wonder if you’re really listening to what they have to say.

But just nodding occasionally with a slight nod of the head will encourage the other person to keep sharing.

So please practice nodding your head; pay attention to native English speakers and how much they’re nodding their heads so that you get a sense of what’s natural.

Use Facial Expressions to Show Interest in the Conversation

Another way that you can show active listening without actually speaking is to use facial expressions.

You may have noticed that Americans tend to be quite expressive, both with our tones but also with our faces.

So I encourage you to think about how you’re moving your face when you’re interacting with an American.

Keep in mind that if you’re not used to showing a lot of expressiveness with your face, it may take some practice.

Your face will naturally rest in a default position.

You may need to practice varying your facial expressions for effect.

The idea is that your facial expressions should reflect your reaction to what the other person is sharing.

If you’re happy – or they’re happy – your facial expression should show happiness. ?

If what they’re saying is shocking or upsetting, you may want to reflect these same emotions on your face. ?

If their story is disappointing, you want to show this disappointment with your face as well as your body language. ?

By using facial expressions during the conversation, you’re showing the other person that you’re engaged and you don’t even have to speak!

Remember, your facial expressions show them that you understand!

Like I said, Americans expect to see these kinds of reactions. If you’re not reacting at all, it’s going to be harder for the other person to connect with you.

On top of that, they may doubt that you understand them; your participation is a nonverbal way to show that you are following along.

To practice this, I encourage you to study the reactions that you see when watching two people having a conversation or even when you’re telling a story to a friend.

Pay attention to how they react and try to model these same reactions.

It can take practice, but it is totally worth it. It’s one of the easiest ways to show the other person that you care what they have to say.

Learn to Use Rejoinders in Conversation

Now that we’ve looked at three ways that you can show active listening without actually speaking, let’s look at two verbal ways to participate in the conversation.

We’ll start with rejoinders, or the short sounds that you make in order to show the other person that you’re engaged in the conversation, that you’re following what they have to say, and that you’re interested in hearing more.

There are a LOT of rejoinders, and it does take some practice to use rejoinders correctly.

Your tone absolutely matters when using rejoinders.

I encourage you to pay attention how native speakers use rejoinders and start creating a list of your own and writing down the tone used. (Learn more about how to use intonation for clear communication.)

Rejoinders are an interesting way to participate in the conversation without focusing too much attention on the words that you need to say.

Here are some common rejoinders:

  • Mmmhmm: When you make this sound, you’re usually telling the other person that you’re listening and encouraging them to keep going. (Watch the video to hear the right tone!)
  • Uh-huh: A similar sound that you can make in order to engage in conversation is to say “uh-huh.” Uh-huh is basically saying “yes” and showing the other person that you’re listening, especially if they’ve been talking for quite a while.
  • Oh: You may also show interest in the other person’s story by saying “Oh.” Saying “oh” with different tones expresses different emotions and attitudes.
  • Some other rejoinders that you may want to practice include “Wow!”, “Really?”, and “I know!”

Once again, you need to pay attention to your tone of voice when using these rejoinders.

Slightly shifting the rise and fall of your pitch can actually affect the emotion or attitude that you’re conveying through these rejoinders.

Ask Clarifying Questions to Show You’re Listening

Lastly, if you want to show the other person that you’re listening, you can always ask them clarifying questions.

If you’re listening carefully to what the other person has said, but maybe you want a few more details or you want them to clarify something because it wasn’t entirely clear, you can ask a clarifying question.

Your questions will show the other person that you care about what they’re sharing, and that you want to know a little bit more.

Practice clarifying questions in advance so that you feel comfortable asking for more details.

In addition to clarifying questions, you may want to ask relevant questions that encourage the other person to go deeper into their story, share more about their experience, or explain their opinion a little bit more.

Anything you can do to show the other person that you want to hear more from them will enable the conversation to go a little more smoothly.

Asking questions is one of the most straightforward ways you can show the other person that you’re listening and prove that you understand them.

Your Turn

Now that we’ve talked about these five ways that you can show active listening, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person wasn’t quite sure you understood them? Have you ever had to prove that you understood what the other person was saying by engaging in the conversation?

Or have you used any of these active listening techniques before? (Remember, communication is quite cultural!)

I’d love to hear how you are showing other people that you’re listening to them.

Remember, active listening is expected in American culture, so the more you can practice it and the more you feel comfortable with these techniques, the more that native English speakers will be sure that you understand them.

Active listening is a great way to participate and engage in the conversation and will hopefully lead to better conversations and better relationships in English.

Want to communicate clearly and confidently in English? Head over to this series of videos and find YOUR voice in English.

5 thoughts on “Five Ways to Show Active Listening During Conversations with Americans”

  1. Again, I love this. I remember when I still lived in the States we had some training in listening for teachers–for all of us native and non-native speakers of English. Because…people really appreciate it!!! And we don’t really do it enough.

    • You’re completely right, Trisha! Active listening is a skill we can always improve on, even as native speakers. Some of us are more sensitive to these cues than others, but they definitely help you connect!

  2. I do these things (back channelling, nodding etc) but I’m not actually always listening as my partner will tell you! That’s why I think asking questions is a great technique because it forces you to pay the most attention. Great tips.

    • Thanks, Cara! It’s interesting how people can tell if we’re listening or not – I find that non-native speakers often have to “prove” that they’re listening and that’s why questions and appropriate rejoinders are often more effective than nodding or saying “mmhmm.” Do you find that active listening is similar in French?

  3. That’s a great question! Yes, maybe I do feel more of an obligation to “say” something – I hadn’t really thought about it before. Also in the past I’ve probably smiled and nodded in situations where I wasn’t 100% sure what was going on, as I’m sure we’ve all done in a foreign language!


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