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?
People can listen to others, but a lot of the time they don’t hear what’s actually being said. This can be caused by thoughts that occupy our minds, the fact that we have prejudices and all the things that can distract us. Being all ears is quite a challenge for many of us. Practice makes perfect though, and active listening is definitely a skill that can be learned. Active listening is a fundamental part of interpersonal communication skills. It’s an active process in which a conscious decision is taken to listen to another person and understand what’s being said.
American psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson came up with the concept of Active Listening in 1957. They said that active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. People who listen actively are more open to new experiences, are less defensive and have a more democratic attitude.
Active listening is a skill that requires time and patience to develop properly. It requires the listener to focus fully on what the other is saying, without letting himself be distracted. It’s common for listeners to be tempted to want to fill a silence by asking questions right away, giving their own opinion or sharing a similar experience. Many people also have the tendency to give advice before letting the other person finish. In addition to these listening barriers, distraction is the biggest culprit that makes it hard to listen actively sometimes. Think of thoughts that keep popping up in your head, the tendency to check our smartphones, trying to overhear other people’s conversations and looking at our surroundings. Active listening means that the speaker gets enough time and space to vent his thoughts, feelings and opinions and express himself well.
The Active Listening method can be used to improve the interpersonal communication between employees. The listener ignores his own emotions, asks specific questions and briefly summarises parts of the conversation. This paraphrasing is a conversation technique that aims let the speaker know that what he’s saying, is being understood. It also prevents premature judgement on the part of the listener or sticking to one’s own opinions.
The traditional technique of listening, summarising and asking follow-up questions can be a big help. When you as the listener respond at the right moments, the speaker will feel at ease and will communicate more easily, more openly and more honestly. He’ll feel encouraged to continue talking and tell more. Active listening requires patience, breaks and/ or short moments of silence, and letting the speaker finish. An active listener has to stay neutral and reserve judgement.
Non verbal communication
Active listening is about non-verbal communication as well as verbal communication. Eye contact and listening posture are important components of active listening. Voice intonation is another part of the vocality of non-verbal communication. The listener’s attitude and posture largely determine his use of voice, including intonation, pitch, power, volume and so on. The intonation when asking a question indicates whether the listener has actually been listening or if the listener wasn’t paying attention at all. Automatically mirroring facial expressions from the speaker is a sign of active, attentive listening. It should be noted that it can look disingenuous if the listener consciously employs these techniques to seem more emphatic.
A handy way to more effectively use non-verbal communication for active listening is the SOFTEN method. The acronym stands for Smile, Open, Forward, Touch, Eye, Nod. It’s a general list of non-verbal cues, though it should be noted that these primarily apply to Western cultures. There are also situations when it’s better to modify things.
This doesn’t mean that the listener needs to grin like an idiot throughout the conversation. It does mean, however, that the listener looks at the speaker with a friendly and interested expression, encouraging him and making him trust that he’s actually being listened to.
Closed body language, like keeping your arms crossed, leaning backwards or forwards too much (defensive) doesn’t motivate the speaker to tell his story. A relaxed listening posture with open arms makes you seem more accessible. Body language provides a lot of information about both the listener and the speaker. When the conversation is going well, you can see spontaneous mirroring of each other’s non-verbal communication.
Attentive listeners tend to lean forward when sitting. Leaning forward like a coachman is a typical listening posture. Moreover, it’s good for the ambiance of the conversation when both the listener and the speaker are at the same level, meaning that both are either sitting or standing.
A light touch of neutral areas like a shoulder, upper back, hand, forearm or upper arm can also encourage the speaker to continue. It should be noted that not all listeners are comfortable with this. The same can be true for the speaker. A light touch only works if it’s a genuine gesture, and doesn’t seem forced.
In Western cultures, it helps to look each other in the eyes during a conversation. Sometimes, intense eye contact can be intimidating. Think of shy speakers or certain situations when prolonged eye contact can be inappropriate. The listener would do well to combine eye contact with a smile for example, and an encouraging nod or two, increasing mutual trust.
In addition to having a listening posture, an active listener will also nod a lot. This includes listening sounds like, ‘aha’, ‘hmm’ and ‘yes’. This will encourage the speaker and make him feel heard.
Responding and repeating
Active listening means hearing what the other person is saying. That’s why it’s very important to briefly summarise what the speaker is saying during the conversation. First of all, this will give the speaker the confidence that he’s being listened to. However, it also helps the listener to pay attention and ‘force’ himself to understand what’s being said. A listener might also take notes, enabling him to understand the message.
Repeating and paraphrasing the speaker is also referred to as reflection and the goal is to indicate that the listener understands the speaker. It’s a powerful skill that reinforces the speaker’s message. If something is unclear, the listener can ask brief questions. This clarifies things and ensures that the active listener is getting the right message.
Now it’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is Active Listening applicable in your daily work? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are tip for improving your communication skills?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Gordon, T., & Bruch, N. (1974). Teacher effectiveness training. New York, NY: PH Wyden.
- Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathic: An unappreciated way of being. The counseling psychologist, 5(2), 2-10.
- Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active listening. Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago.
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