How To Even…Actively Listen

By Michael Gushue & CL Bledsoe

People talk. It’s probably their favorite thing to do, aside from driving slowly in front of me or being generally better at life than me. You can run away from them, screaming, with your hands over your ears, or you can suck it up and listen. And if you’re going to listen, you should do it right.

There are many benefits to listening to people. They might be trying to give you something, though it’s probably a bill or a summons. So, okay, scratch that. How about you won’t be as surprised when things happen. Um…well, that’s probably the only actual benefit. Also, it could be argued that that’s less of a benefit because life would be more interesting if you never knew what was happening. Let’s skip ahead.

Listening is fine, but if you really want to suss out the true nature of communication and get to the gritty-nitty, you’ve got to listen…actively. Active listening is like being the power bottom of the conversation. Don’t just sit there and take the information. Maybe we shouldn’t continue with this analogy.

Body Language i.e. Looking Interested

In order to listen actively, you need to adopt an “active listening stance.” Obviously, the speaker will need to alert you that they are about to speak in a meaningful way so that you have time to position yourself appropriately. They might do this by slamming a battle ax into a table or throwing a cat at your groin. Once they’ve gotten your attention, it’s time to act.

Stand in front of the person you intend to listen to. Place your hands directly over their ears in order to hold their head steady — don’t worry about them not being able to hear themselves. A person’s voice travels directly from their mouth to their ears through their skull, which is why our voices all sound so boney. Now, stare directly into the person’s eyes. It can be difficult, at times, to interpret a person’s words, but in this position, you’ll be able to read the script they’re reading from as it flashes across the back of their eyes. You may be thinking that these words will be backwards. It’s a little known fact that the eyes actually interpret their surroundings upside down. So it will be upside down and backwards.This is why you should stand on your head while listening intently.

  • Note: if the speaker isn’t reading from a script, consider suggesting they write one. And then offer them notes. Everybody loves critique.

If you’re anticipating listening to some particularly uncomfortable talk, you might consider what is know as the Listener’s Stance:

  • Remove the left foot and place the left knee adjacent to the right ankle
  • The toe of the left foot should be turned under
  • Hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width
  • Arms should be straight but not locked at the elbow
  • The fingers should form a bridge, with the thumbs pointing toward one another
  • Hips raised to a position slightly higher than the shoulders
  • There should be an angle of 90 degrees at the front knee
  • There should be an angle of 120 degrees on the rear knee
  • The head and neck should be in line with the spine
  • Remain motionless

This will allow you to produce a powerful drive away from the speaker the moment things get dicey.

When the person speaks, you should nod encouragingly every fifteen seconds. It’s fine to set a timer. They will probably also say something negative, so you should shake your head every twenty-five seconds. To make sure, you should also laugh every thirty-seven seconds and gasp every forty-two. If this sounds too regimented, you may try to react more naturally, but you’re going to get distracted and miss things, trust us on this. If listening to people was interesting, we wouldn’t have to pay therapists. Also, be wary of nodding too fast or too slow, which will are sure signs of a newbie listener.

If you really want to sell your reaction, consider doing a soft shoe routine while the person talks. This will impress them with how attentive you’re being and how affected you are by their words. Don’t let go of their ears, though. If you’re standing on your head, you may want to do that head-spinny dance on cardboard that people did in the 80s. Or was it 90s? Either way, that was so long ago, it would be considered retro, now. So, let’s bring it back.


In addition to laughing and gasping, you should probably say things, like, “Huh,” or, “I’ve never been to Uruguay.” You don’t want to vocalize too much, or the person will think you’re trying to talk over them, which is rude, even if they are tremendously boring, which they are.

You may want to give a more animated response. Gauge the speaker’s voice modulations and match those. If they sound really excited, for example, you may want to hoot in agreement. If they laugh, look directly into their face and laugh as loudly as possible, to show that you appreciate the joke, even if it’s not funny, which it won’t be.

Another good way of showing that you are paying attention is, every so often, repeat the speaker’s last few words as a question. This has a greater degree of difficulty because it means actually being able to repeat the actual words that went into your ears a few moments ago. But nothing demonstrates active listening like the speaker hearing “So, it’s a malignant tumor?” or “So, we should exterminate that entire minority group?” parroted back to them.

Are You Done Yet?

It can be difficult to tell when a person is finished talking. Continue holding their ears and staring deeply into their eyes until they’ve stopped talking for a full two minutes. You might think that any lull in conversation means the conversation is over, but this may not be the case. Only by waiting the full two minutes can you discern whether they’ve truly finished talking. Also, they might not know they’re done. They might think of something more to say. Waiting patiently is the polite thing to do.

Your Turn

Now, that you’ve finished listening, release the person’s ears. Refer to your notes to make sure you haven’t missed anything. It is now time for the other person to listen to you. Expose your ears for them to grasp. You may need to guide their hands for better coverage. They will now repeat all the aforementioned actions. If they miss any, feel free to stop your story, point out their failing, and then start your story again from the beginning, no matter how many times you have to do this or how long it takes.

More Than One Speaker and “The Shush”

Now that you’ve gained some confidence from listening to one person, it’s time to up your game by joining a multi-participant conversation. An important thing to remember is that you can only focus on one person at a time, unless you install a split-screen situation in your head, which involves some risky brain surgery and, more importantly, which insurance definitely won’t cover.

The basic concept is the same. One person speaks, the next person speaks, etc. Be aware that not everyone is as adept at listening as you are learning to be. That might mean that one person doesn’t wait their turn, which can be confusing and frustrating because it will draw your attention away from the designated speaker.

In a situation like this, it’s important to remember that conversations are much like street fights; even though the movies say differently, you can only really fight one person at a time — or, in this situation, listen to one person at a time. That means when there are multiple participants, you’ve got to incapacitate one or more of them very quickly. You can do this physically, perhaps with a throat punch or by utilizing the aforementioned battle ax, or by employing that most vicious of all weapons, “The Shush.”

Here’s how “The Shush” works. Stand directly in front of the person you want to shush. Position your mouth less than six inches from their eyes, to ensure that they can see you as well as hear you. Place your index finger to your lips. Open you lips slightly and say the word “shush” as loudly as you can. It should look as though you’re french kissing your own finger. Hold this note as long as you deem necessary. We suggest holding the word until you begin to black out from lack of oxygen. If the person continues speaking, continue shushing. If they pause and then try to start again, hit them with the battle ax.

Three Or More People Speaking.

Now that you’ve shushed the offender, it’s time to actually speak. First, an order of speaking must be assigned. There are many ways to decide this. The 4-Way Stop method is the most common, in which the first person to enter the conversation goes first, then the next person to enter, etc. If two people enter at the same time, either the one to the right goes first, or they must battle to the death to decide primacy.

Once the order of speaking has been decided, proceed in the proscribed manner.

Interrupters and Late Additions

Inevitably, someone will try to join your conversation after it has already begun. In a situation like this, there are three basic options. You can let the person join using the 4-Way-Stop method, in which they would join in when the other speakers have finished. You can ignore them and continue your conversation as planned, which is a good option if the person is an unsavory person like an insurance adjuster or someone who puts mayonnaise on hot dogs.

But sometimes, a newbie refuses to wait their turn or be ignored; they insist on not only taking part in the conversation but “jumping the queue.” In a situation like this, there is only one option: The Validation.

Grab the person by their ears. Put your mouth directly to their eyes so that they can see what you are about to say plainly. As loudly as possible, say, “You are a person and we are people.” You may need to repeat this several times while shaking their head as emphasis. Eventually. your message of mutual respect will break through the levels of psychic trauma they may have sustained that have led to their rude behavior. Or, they will become frightened of their own mortality and run away. Either way, the problem will be resolved.

What do you gain from active listening?

Hey, look, we’re not saints, and we know that people only do things for their own personal gain, like when you help that old lady take her trash out so you can steal her trash and go through it for material for your found sculptures or when you saved that squirrel’s life so it would owe you a life debt and come save you at your time of greatest need. We’re not asking you to be anything more than you are. Except maybe dressed in something low-cut. And with puppies.

Active listening benefits the listener, more often than not, in three major ways.

  1. Gossip., i.e. ammunition. If you really pay attention, people will tell you all kinds of stuff about themselves and others that they really probably shouldn’t tell anyone. We don’t just mean illegal stuff, but really sad personal stuff that they should bury super deep inside and never tell anyone ever. Stuff that you can totally lord over them or use to influence other people’s opinions of them.
  2. Clues about the true nature of reality. Whether you want to call it the matrix, a fever dream, or some old bullshit, the world we see is but a veil, hiding the true reality behind, and sometimes randos totally know things.
  3. Cake recipes. For example, triple layer devil’s food cake with dark chocolate ganache filling and coffee-kahlua buttercream frosting.

Active listening doesn’t just benefit you in the immediate situation, either. You can use it all over the place. Try using it with your significant other, and maybe you’ll be able to figure out why they’re angry or crying all the time and who this new person is who’s been living on the couch for the last three weeks. The same is true of many pets, except chinchillas, which are inscrutable, yet have somewhere within them the wisdom of the ages.

Active Listening in The Real World

So, let’s put this into play in a real-world-esque situation. Let’s say you’re in a relationship. You look up from your comic book or cat or whatever and notice that your partner is talking at you. This is a perfect opportunity to practice what we’ve been preaching.

Stand and approach your significant other. Grasp their ears as you’ve been instructed. If your significant other lacks ears, grasp their nose tightly. If they lack ears and a nose, your significant other might be a water balloon or may not exist. Either way, the basic principle is the same, just maybe squishier.

Let them speak. When they are finished, it’s your turn. If you don’t know what to speak about, consider reciting a Shakespearean sonnet. Everybody loves poetry.

With this clear example of communication, your relationship will only grow stronger. If it doesn’t, we hold no liability.

Scenario Number Two: Let’s say you’re at work. Your boss calls you into their office to tell you something important — you know it’s important because it’s something your boss is telling you, even if it is stupid and pointless, which it will be.

Follow the steps we’ve laid out, and when it’s your turn to speak, deliver the “coffee is for closers” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. Your boss will not only be impressed with your understanding of business, but with your delivery and breath work.

Additional Variations

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m feeling peckish.” That’s fair. You may also be thinking to yourself, “I am having a hard time focusing on what people are actually saying because I’m too busy responding to them.” That is also fair.

If you are struggling, you may want to hire a scribe to follow you around and take notes on every conversation you have. When the other converser/s are finished speaking, you can continue to hold their ears while your scribe recites the bullet points of the conversation back to you. This will ensure active participation in the conversation.

Similarly, let’s say you struggle to “think on your feet.” Someone speaks, and your only response is “Wow, that sucks for your dog” (which actually applies in a surprising number of situations because it does suck for many people’s dogs). In a situation like this, you may want to hire a writer — or team of writers — to work in conjunction with your scribe in order to give the best response possible.


As you can “hear,” we’ve pretty thoroughly and handsomely and well-dressedely described some great ways of listening actively, as well as a few reasons as to why this is important. But maybe after all this you still aren’t convinced. This would be a good opportunity for a terrible joke about how maybe you weren’t “listening” actively enough, but we’re not going to do that. We’re professionals. What we will say is that we get it. Life is hard and noisy enough without actually listening to people talking at you. Always wanting things. Probably getting talk germs on you. And do they have cake? Rarely, if ever. It’s a sad old world.

But let’s be honest. Isn’t the real reason you don’t want to actively listen that you’re afraid you’ll catch the feels? First, you’re listening to someone, then, you’re holding hands with them while skipping through a field of daisies. We’ve seen it happen eleven times. Maybe twelve. That last couple were really clumsy, so it was more tripping and rolling down a hill of daisies. But you get the point. If you start listening and then start caring about people, it will be harder to sell their information to the Russians or Republicans, and then how will you afford Fanta? It’s a conundrum, and the only solution we have is that maybe there’s more to life than Fanta. This is a hard truth, we know. But there really is. There’s pink lemonade. There’s um well that’s about it. So.

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