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The Art of Active Listening

Posted by vince
Published on 15 March 2019

Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills. It isn’t something that just happens (that’s hearing). Listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen – and, most importantly, to fully understand the messages of the speaker.

Active listening means, as its name suggests, actively listening, that is fully concentrating on what’s being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of whoever’s talking. Most of us tend to listen for a while to someone on a one-to-one or small group basis and then, while hearing but not listening, spend a lot of time thinking about what to say in return. Or, if it’s a speech, lecture, presentation or a pitch to which we’re listening is less than riveting, poorly delivered or too long, then any listener will zone out and recall little.

Active listening involves listening with all the senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it’s necessary that the active listener is also ‘seen’ to be listening. Otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they’re talking about is uninteresting. Interest is conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal messages, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘yes’ or simply ‘OK’ to encourage him/her to continue. By providing this immensely powerful and necessary feedback (which by the way we all need), the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more comfortably, openly and honestly.

Listeners should remain neutral and non-judgmental; this means trying hard not to take sides or form fixed opinions, especially early in conversation or speech (unless of course either are abhorrent or are so against everything in which you believe). Active listening is about patience and therefore pauses and short periods of silence should be accepted. That’s hard of course because in most conversations most of us think that any silence or pause needs filling. Listeners should not be tempted to jump in with questions or comments every time there is a few seconds of silence. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore thoughts and feelings.

Small smiles can be used to show that the listener is paying attention to the conversation or as a way of agreeing or being happy about the message received. Combined with nods of the head, smiles can be powerful in affirming that messages are being listened to and understood. It’s normal and usually encouraging for the listener to look at the speaker. Eye contact can, however, be intimidating for many people, especially for shyer speakers or where the subject matter is complex to explain, so the amount of eye contact needs to be measured to suit the situation. Which is why going for a walk while talking is a good idea in many circumstances.

Posture too can say much about the speaker and listener. The attentive listener tends to lean forward slightly or sideways while sitting. Other signs of active listening may include a slight slant of the head or resting the head on one hand. Automatic reflection or mirroring of any facial expressions used by the speaker can be a sign of attentive listening, but be careful not to end up imitating the speaker which may cause issues. S/he might wonder if you’re being rude or having a joke at his/her expense.

The active listener won’t be distracted and therefore will refrain from looking at a phone, taking a call, fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, doodling, playing with hair or picking fingernails. Anything that distracts or shows that the listener isn’t concentrating but is just hearing and going through the motions will do absolutely nothing for the speaker and the opportunity. The speaker will become disheartened and, in all likelihood, will cut short the conversation. It may cause distress – after all, you both agreed to talk, and you shouldn’t abuse that trust. It’s more than possible that s/he won’t seek a similar opportunity with you again.

Whether in social or work environments, we don’t just want to speak – we want to be truly understood. Active listening is a way of paying attention. It’s fully concentrating on, engaging in, and absorbing what someone else is saying to you. We see people on TV regularly practice the art of not listening because they are thinking about what to say next or have rehearsed soundbites to spout. These scenarios are not models from which we should copy.

The workplace is often fuelled by stress and pressure, and every person deals with this in their way. Most people appreciate having supportive and understanding peers. Whether you’re a manager or colleague, others will find great value in having a person around who reaches out and shows understanding. For example, knowing and acknowledging some of the work-related or personal issues that face your team, will make them feel valued and likely inspire confidence. And it’s respected, self-assured teams which accomplish great results. When you’re actively engaged and listening to your peers’ concerns or wider business issues, you can always gain a better understanding of the problem and subsequently formulate the most optimal and accurate solutions. But be wary here. Sometimes the speaker will assume that what s/he is saying is tantamount to expecting you, as the listener, to do or promise something for the speaker - time off, promotion, salary increase, different ways of working, holiday entitlement, benefits, job title – whatever. You may inadvertently be agreeing to any of these by a nod or what seems to be an implicit promise, so be careful to summarise your understanding of the output either verbally at the end of the conversation or follow up, as appropriate, with a confidential email. You can, of course, ask the speaker if s/he minds if you take notes while listening, which gives you a better fix on the issues after the meeting. Of course, note-taking wouldn’t be suitable for all topics. Those of an emotional nature may need you just to listen and look. But jotting down just a few notes throughout the meeting can enable you to stay engaged and connected as key issues emerge. It also means that you’ve got a record of the meeting, and can provide valuable feedback and follow-up questions long after the encounter has concluded.

There are times in the workplace when you may have to deal with conflict. Although you may not always agree with others’ opinions, it’s important to be open to the experiences and perspectives of those around you and the best way to demonstrate this is through active listening. The conflict between two parties makes people defensive, but if a person feels that his/her concerns are being understood and taken seriously, the chances of landing a resolution are high. Or higher. And, if both parties feel that their point or stance is clearly understood, then the beneficial outcome is likely to be longer-lasting. It may also encourage other people to speak regularly and openly about other areas of conflict, resulting in a more transparent workplace generally.

Being an active listener is not easy, but it’s an essential social and managerial skill. It conveys good character, care and commitment, all of which contribute to being a better person.

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