Although the term, ‘active listening’ is not new, unless you are familiar with it, you may not really fully understand or appreciate in full what it is and more importantly why it’s so important.
Active listening is a technique used in communication, especially by Counsellors and those who excel in interpersonal communications. The general premise is that you as the listener check on what you hear to the speaker; doing this by re-stating or paraphrasing what you have heard in words of your own. This confirms the accuracy of what was both said and heard, so both you and the other person have a shared understanding.
The value in this is that for the speaker, they can clarify anything misunderstood or not made clear, and ultimately feel they’ve been accurately heard in full and fully understood. You as the listener also are 100% clear that what you THINK you hear and understand is in fact what was really communicated. And it doesn’t stop at just the words spoken. The very best communicator’s and active listener’s pick up on the non-verbal communication going on which is added to the words they hear. If someone is almost lying down in their chair and propping up their head in their hands but is talking about really being enthusiastic in a slow, monotonous voice, the words and the observable body language don’t support each other, and the active listener would point this out and seek clarity.
So what’s this have to do with you personally? Well like driving a Forklift, mopping a floor, teaching a class or cooking a meal, active listening is a skill. And like any skill, you can have it or not, develop it or not, and ultimately use it or not. But unlike the other examples I mentioned in this paragraph, this skill is transferable and can applied in all interactions with literally everyone you meet, be it at home or work, social or professional gatherings.
Now think of job postings you’ve seen where it says you have to work well with other people. Working well with other people does not mean, “you do your job and shut up and let me do mine.” That’s a direct quote from someone I was discussing the idea of working well with others with not long ago. And like any other skill, the more you use it, the more comfortable you get with it, and the more natural it becomes.
If it helps to illustrate the opposite, think how often you are talking to someone in your own life and pick up signs that they are really listening or they are but don’t really get what you’re saying at all. “Ugh, you don’t understand! You never listen!” is the kind of thing you may recall people saying to you personally, and what they are saying communicating is that you really aren’t actively engaged in listening and sincerely don’t understand. The result is the other person leaves in frustration, and the message they take away is that you either don’t care enough to give them your full attention, or you didn’t really listen.
When listening to someone, a good idea is to minimize distractions so that the only communication you are engaged in at that time is the person speaking. Think of a Counsellor who closes their door to others, turns their chair away from the computer, pulling it up to a comfortable distance sitting facing their client, and leans slightly in so they are fully focused on the person they are seeing. That client gets the message very clearly, “I’m giving you my full attention and ready to listen.” I was out for dinner with four other people last weekend and in noisy restaurant it was impossible to participate much in a conversation going on at the other end of the table. I knew I was only catching bits and pieces, and felt frustrated in not giving my full attention to others when they were speaking – it was hard work!
And here’s the most significant thing to be gained from the practice of active listening. When someone knows they have been heard correctly and understood, they say more, and what they say is usually deeper, more meaningful, and ultimately more beneficial because the layer of trust has been reached. When someone says, “Wow, she’s good, she really listens”, what they are really saying is that the person is an effective active listener. But who says that?
You hear effective active listeners clarify often. “So what I hear you say is…” or “What you’re saying is important and I want to make sure I’ve got it right. You’re saying…” Now of course good listeners don’t want to interrupt and sound like they have hearing issues by constantly saying, “If I hear you correctly…” And a no-no for many people who are openly up is to say, “What you’re really trying to say is…” That projects you as some all-knowing superior being, and suggests the person isn’t expressing themselves well, and you may be right or wrong.
The next time you are having a conversation, really listen to the other person, minimize interruptions and give them your full attention. Check on what you’ve heard, and avoid the temptation of naturally forming what you want to say as soon as the other person gives you an opening. When you check on what you are hearing, you’ll have a solid contribution to add to the conversation.