Active Listening

Active Listening - ToolsHero

This article describes Active Listening in a practical way. After reading you will understand the definition, meaning and basics of this powerful communication tool.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is a so-called soft skill about the ability to fully concentrate on a speaker, to understand the message and to react thoughtfully. Active listening is the opposite of passive listening where the speaker is merely heard. It’s important that the active listener is also seen by the speaker. Active listening therefore includes listening with all senses. If the speaker does not see the listener actively listening, the speaker can conclude that what they are talking about is of no interest to the listener. Interest can be shown by using both verbal and non-verbal messages. Examples include eye contact, nodding of the head, smiling, using words like “hm” to encourage the other person to continue, and other forms of affirmation.

Why is active listening important?

It’s important to learn this highly valued interpersonal communication in both professional and everyday life. Active listening ensures that specific details from a conversation stand out that can be recalled later without having to repeat the information. This technique is also used as part of stress management, where applicants can reduce nervousness during and before an interview. By focussing directly on the interviewer, the applicant proves that:

  • He or she is interested in the challenges and possibilities in the organisation.
  • He or she is ready to help with the resolution of problems.
  • He or she is a team player instead of an applicant only interested in themselves.

With active listening it’s important that the speaker is not interrupted. Or worse, trying to answer the question before the interviewer has finished talking.

Critical Thinking and Active Listening

Critical Thinking is the intellectual process of actively and skilfully applying, conceptualising, analysing, or evaluating information collected through observation, experience, reasoning, reflection, or communication. In other words, critical thinking is the process by which people assess information for quality and quantity to solve problems and develop new insights. Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines assumptions, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions. People who think critically are able to:

  • Identify problems and find solutions
  • Understand the importance of prioritisation
  • Gather relevant information
  • Read between the lines
  • Use language clearly and effectively
  • Interpret data and form conclusions about it
  • Apply logic
  • To test conclusions and generalisations
  • Make accurate judgments about specific things and qualities

To enhance their critical thinking capability, it is important that they constantly listen actively. People with these skills are able to organise information they receive, understand the context or reference, recognise assumptions, make connections, determine the level of truth and draw conclusions. Conversely, active listening allows people to gather information that promotes communication as well as critical thinking.

Critical listening skills and techniques

Critical thinking involves the use of different techniques and the learning of skills Below are several tips that can help you develop your active listening skills.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is the summarising of the most important points of the speaker’s message in your own words. In this way the listener shows that he or she fully understands the speaker. This confirmation gives the speaker the opportunity to explain information or to elaborate on or confirm the message. An example is a manager who comments in a meeting with his employee, “So, what you just said is that the current CRM system no longer meets the technical needs of the teams?”

Ask open questions

By asking open questions the listener shows that he or she has understood the essence of what is being shared. Make sure that these questions cannot be answered with yes or no. An example of this is: ‘what changes would you like to make to the CRM system in the next six months?’

Asking questions in general shows interest. Avoid ending or changing the subject abruptly. This makes the speaker think that the other person was listening to him or her.

Ask specific questions

In addition to asking open questions, also ask specific questions. Direct questions enable the speaker to share more details about the topic. An example of this is: ‘tell me more about the time pressure of current projects.’

Use affirmation

The listener picks up signals of active listening and is assured that the listener is interested in the story. Short, positive expressions let the speaker know that he or she can feel comfortable and that the listener is involved in the conversation. Examples of this are: ‘I understand that’, ‘yes, right’, ‘yes, yes’.

Be empathetic

It is important that the speaker also understands that the listener understands his or her emotions and can share feelings. Showing empathy can create a valuable connection and build a sense of mutual trust. An example of this is: ‘I’m sorry that you have to deal with this problem. Let me see how I can help.’

Share similar experiences

Sharing similar experiences shows the speaker that the message has been successfully interpreted. It also helps build new relationships. If a speaker has shared a problem, it is valuable for others to provide input on how similar problems have been resolved. Make sure that the focus of the conversation does not shift to you. Active listening is not about shifting the focus of a conversation. An example of sharing similar experiences is: “I also found it difficult to deal with this problem at my previous employer. But over time it becomes easier. I believe this is the case for you too.”

Share previously retrieved information

Try to remember the key elements of the speaker’s story and summarize them at a later time. This shows that the listener not only listens at the moment of speaking, but actively thinks about it afterwards and remembers specific details. An example of this is: “Last week you gave me the tip to upgrade the CRM system, and I think it’s a great idea.”

Other active listening skills and characteristics

Active listening is a skill that is doesn’t just consist of a few best practices. In addition to the techniques mentioned above, active listening requires the following (inter)personal attributes and methods.

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Validation
  • Courage
  • Transparency
  • Integrity
  • Proactivity
  • Humility
  • Accepting constructive feedback
  • Creating realistic expectations
  • Self-confidence
  • Observational ability
  • Body language
  • Cooperative ability
  • Reaching consensus

Active Listening example

Below is an example of what a conversation looks like when active listening is applied.

Victor: Sorry to tell you this, but I had a disagreement with my colleague and we haven’t spoken since then. I’m angry and I don’t know whom to talk to.
Alison: How annoying. Can you tell me more about what happened?
Victor: We were discussing the best strategy for entering the German market and we fundamentally disagreed. I’m still angry about it.
Alison: That is unfortunate. You must be upset not to be able to discuss this with anyone.
Victor: Yes, but I am especially angry because he saddles me with tasks for which I don’t have time.
Alison: That is always difficult. Did you explain why you have no time? And how did you feel after that?
Victor: Angry, and maybe a bit guilty that I don’t have any time to help him while he always helps me.
Alison: That sounds complicated. I think you will soon find out what works for your colleague and for you.
Victor: I think so too. Thanks for listening. I just wanted to get it off my chest.

Barriers in active listening

Active listening can be affected by barriers that hinder the information stream in a conversation. These barriers stem from distraction, the inability to prioritise different types of information, a tendency to make assumptions or make judgments based on little or no information, and general confusion. Listening barriers can be physical as well as psychological. An example of a psychological barrier is emotion, and a physical one can be noise or visual distraction.

Concentration

Reduced concentration is detrimental to effective listening. Reduced concentration can be the result of various psychological or physical complications. Regardless of the cause, when a listener is not focused on what the speaker is saying, effective communication will diminish significantly.

Lack of priority

The opposite of a lack of attention to detail is paying too much attention to the least important information. Listeners should be able to pick up cues and prioritise important information to identify the context of the conversation. Often the information that the public needs is provided along with less relevant information. When listeners weigh up everything that they hear equally, it becomes difficult to distinguish the information they need from the rest of the information. An example of this are a student’s notes. Writing down a lecture word by word is impossible and also not efficient. That is why they only write down the important things with regards to an entire lecture.

Cultural differences

Cultural barriers can also hinder active listening. This includes accents, vocabulary and misunderstandings due to cultural values and beliefs. The same prejudices apply to the physical appearance of the speaker and the listener. In order to reduce these barriers, listeners must focus primarily on the content and also be aware of the existence of the prejudices.

Advantages of active listening in different contexts

When active listening is learned and adopted as a habit, it can have many positive consequences for the way you approach different aspects of life.

Relationships

Active listening offers several benefits in relationships. It enables one to better understand the other’s point of view and to respond empathetically to what is being said. Asking questions ensures that what is discussed is also clearly understood.

In addition, signals of active listening validate the speaker and make them want to talk for longer. It’s not difficult to see how this benefits relationships. Being an active listener in a relationship means that a person recognises that the conversation is more about the partner than about him or her. This is important when a partner is in (emotional) distress. However, it is important that neither party is self-effacing. A balance in sharing empathy in conversations is necessary.

Professionally

Active listening also offers advantages in professional life. This is especially important when it comes to a managerial position or positions where collaboration is very important. Active listening in the workplace enables people to better understand problems and learn to work together to find solutions for collective problems. Active listening also reflects patience. This is a very valuable attribute in the workplace.

Social situations

Active listening is also beneficial when applied in situations where you are meeting other people. Asking questions, seeking clarification, paraphrasing, and affirming are all ways to learn more about the people you are talking to.

Now it’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognise yourself in this explanation of active listening? Do you apply active listening when you’re talking to others? Do you appreciate it when others actively listen to what you have to say? What else do you think is important when having a conversation? Which verbal and non-verbal affirmations do you use? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Gordon, T., & Bruch, N. (1974). Teacher effectiveness training. New York, NY: PH Wyden.
  2. Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathic: An unappreciated way of being. The counseling psychologist, 5(2), 2-10.
  3. Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active listening. Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago.
  4. Robertson, K. (2005). Active listening: more than just paying attention. Australian family physician, 34(12), 1053.
  5. Rost, M., & Wilson, J. J. (2013). Active listening. Routledge.
  6. Jalongo, M. R. (1995). Childhood Education, 72(1), 13-18.
  7. McNaughton, D., Hamlin, D., McCarthy, J., Head-Reeves, D., & Schreiner, M. (2008). Learning to listen: Teaching an active listening strategy to preservice education professionals. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 27(4), 223-231.

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