What is Active Listening?
‘Hearing’ is an involuntary act of acknowledging a sound or noise. ‘Listening’ is a voluntary act wherein the listener makes an attempt to grasp the external sound or noise. ‘Active Listening’ is an advanced form of listening, wherein the listener not only grasps the sound or words, but also understands the body language of the speaker but also the underlying message of the speech. Active listening is achieved when the listener is able to reproduce the said speech in his own words or questions to the listener. The listener pays unwavering attention and makes a conscious effort to concentrate on the speaker’s words and grasp the underlying message in the speech.
Features of Active Listening
Active listening involves more than just hearing someone speak. When you practice active listening, you are fully concentrating on what is being said. You listen with all of your senses and give your full attention to the person speaking.
Below are some features of active listening:1
- Neutral and nonjudgmental
- Patient (periods of silence are not “filled”)
- Verbal and nonverbal feedback to show signs of listening (e.g., smiling, eye contact, leaning in, mirroring)
- Asking questions
- Reflecting back what is said
- Asking for clarification
In this way, active listening is the opposite of passive hearing.
When you listen actively, you are fully engaged and immersed in what the other person is saying.
Much like a therapist listening to a client, you are there to act as a sounding board rather than ready to jump in with your own ideas and opinions about what is being said.
Examples of Active Listening Responses
It’s often easier to learn by reading examples. Here are some examples of statements and questions employed with active listening:
- Building trust and establishing rapport: “Tell me what I can do to help.” “I was really impressed to read on your website how you donate 5% of each sale to charity.”
- Demonstrating concern: “I’m eager to help; I know you’re going through some tough challenges.” “I know how hard a corporate restructuring can be. How is staff morale at this point?”
- Paraphrasing: “So, you’re saying that the uncertainty about who will be your new supervisor is creating stress for you.” “So, you think that we need to build up our social media marketing efforts.”
- Brief verbal affirmation: “I understand that you’d like more frequent feedback about your performance.” “Thank you. I appreciate your time in speaking to me.”
- Asking open-ended questions: “I can see that John’s criticism was very upsetting to you. Which aspect of his critique was most disturbing?” “It’s clear that the current situation is intolerable for you. What changes would you like to see?”
- Asking specific questions: “How long do you expect your hiring process to last?” “What is your average rate of staff turnover?”
- Waiting to disclose your opinion: “Tell me more about your proposal to reorganize the department.” “Can you please provide some history for me regarding your relationship with your former business partner?”
- Disclosing similar situations: “I was also conflicted about returning to work after the birth of my son.” “I had the responsibility of terminating some of my personnel, due to downsizing, over the last two years. Even if it’s necessary, it never gets easier.”
How To Becoming an Active Listener
There are five key active listening techniques you can use to help you become a more effective listener:
1. Pay Attention
Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly.
- Look at the speaker directly.
- Put aside distracting thoughts.
- Don’t mentally prepare a rebuttal!
- Avoid being distracted by environmental factors. For example, side conversations.
- “Listen” to the speaker’s body language.
2. Show That You’re Listening
Use your own body language and gestures to show that you are engaged.
- Nod occasionally.
- Smile and use other facial expressions.
- Make sure that your posture is open and interested.
- Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and “uh huh.”
3. Provide Feedback
Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect on what is being said and to ask questions.
- Reflect on what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is… ,” and “Sounds like you are saying… ,” are great ways to reflect back.
- Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say… .” “Is this what you mean?”
- Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically.
If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so. And ask for more information: “I may not be understanding you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is XXX. Is that what you meant?”
4. Defer Judgment
Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.
- Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.
- Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.
5. Respond Appropriately
Active listening is designed to encourage respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting her down.
- Be candid, open and honest in your response.
- Assert your opinions respectfully.
- Treat the other person in a way that you think they would want to be treated.