Jul 19, 2017
Posted in: workplace
By Jim Edmondson
We have all heard the term ‘active listening’ but what does it entail and how can it help us at work and in our daily lives? Active listening means fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. Taking in all the information that is being given and considering it without pre-determination.
Active listening is a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice. However, active listening can be difficult to master and will, therefore, take time and patience to develop. Active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also seen to be listening – otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is unimportant to the listener.
Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal cues such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Hmm’ to encourage them to continue. By providing this feedback the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.
Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills. Listening is not something that just happens (that is hearing). Rather, it is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker.
It is crucial that the listener remain neutral and non-judgmental; that is, trying not to take sides or form opinions, especially early in the conversation. Active listening is also about patience – pauses and short periods of silence should be accepted. Listeners should not be tempted to jump in with questions or comments every time there are a few seconds of silence. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings, they should, therefore, be given adequate time for that.
Active listening not only means focusing fully on the speaker but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening.
Non-Verbal Signs of Active Listening
This is a generic list of non-verbal signs; however these signs may not be appropriate in all situations and across all cultures.
Smile: A small smiles can be used to show that the listener is paying attention to what is being said or as a way of agreeing or being happy about the messages being received. Combined with nods of the head, smiles can be powerful in affirming that messages are being listened to and understood.
Eye Contact: It is normal and usually encouraging for the listener to look at the speaker. Eye contact can however be intimidating, especially for more shy speakers – gauge how much eye contact is appropriate for any given situation. Combine eye contact with smiles and other non-verbal messages to encourage the speaker.
Posture: Posture can tell a lot about the sender and receiver in interpersonal interactions. The attentive listener tends to lean slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting. Other signs of active listening may include a slight slant of the head or resting the head on one hand.
Distraction: The active listener will not be distracted and therefore will refrain from fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, doodling, playing with their hair or picking their fingernails.
Verbal Signs of Active Listening
Positive Reinforcement: Although a strong signal of attentiveness, caution should be used when using positive verbal reinforcement. While some positive words of encouragement may be beneficial to the speaker, the listener should use them sparingly so as not to distract from what is being said or place unnecessary emphasis on parts of the message. Casual and frequent use of words and phrases, such as: ‘very good’, ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ can become irritating to the speaker. It is usually better to elaborate and explain why you are agreeing with a certain point.
Questioning: The listeners can demonstrate that they have been paying attention by asking relevant questions and/or making statements that build or help to clarify what the speaker has said. By asking relevant questions the listener also helps to reinforce that they have an interest in what the speaker has been saying.
Reflection: Reflecting is closely repeating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said in order to show comprehension. Reflection is a powerful skill that can reinforce the message of the speaker and demonstrate understanding.
Clarification: Clarifying involves asking questions of the speaker to ensure that the correct message has been received. Clarification usually involves the use of open questions which enables the speaker to expand on certain points as necessary.
Summarisation: Repeating a summary of what has been said back to the speaker is a technique used by the listener to repeat what has been said in their own words. Summarising involves taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them in a logical and clear way, giving the speaker chance to correct if necessary.