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  • Writer's pictureSarah Butler

Active Listening

Listening well is one of the most critical skills you can have and it will have a direct impact on your relationships, job effectiveness, and career success.

Research suggests that we only take in 25-50% of what another person is saying. Also, the brain can process about 800 words per minute whereas we speak at approximately 125 words per minute. That leaves a lot of time for our mind to wander, and compete for our attention rather than focussing on the message the other person is trying to communicate.

Listening actively goes beyond simply hearing the words. Active listening is about using a set of techniques to hear what the other person has said and understand the meaning as they intended. You are fully engaged and focused on what the other person is communicating - not just verbally but recognising their non-verbal communication as well. You are not tuning people out, giving only some of your attention or just waiting for your opportunity to speak, distracted by planning your response.

Here is an example between passive listening and active listening as it might happen in the workplace.

Passive listening

You are in a meeting with a colleague who needs to give instructions on a project you are to take over from them. They run through the key points and steps you need to take and you remain quiet and nod your head. Meanwhile, you are mentally running through your to-do list and other priorities for the day. You missed a few steps but you will figure those out later - you just need to get this meeting over and done with.

Active listening

While your colleague is handing over the project you have asked clarifying questions about things you think you may not have understood fully, summarised the information they have given to check your understanding, and made notes to refer to later. Your phone is nowhere to be seen and you consciously redirect your thoughts whenever they start to drift to other things.

Benefits of active listening

Active listening is an important communication skill that can help you better understand others and create productive conversations. Here are some of the benefits of actively listening:

  1. Improves communication - Active listening helps to bridge the gap between two people to create rapport and encourages them to be more open and honest in their conversations. Active listening provides the tools to question, paraphrase and give feedback which greatly improves the quality of communication.

  2. Strengthens relationships - Listening actively helps to build trust between people and therefore strengthens relationships. The person you are communicating with feels more valued, seen and understood.

  3. Increases empathy - Active listening allows you to better see the other person’s point of view, which can help to increase empathy and creates a shared understanding. It also helps to eliminate bias that might affect your interpretation.

  4. Enhances problem-solving skills - Active listening helps to identify the root causes of a problem and can result in more effective, creative solutions created collaboratively.

  5. Improves memory - Listening actively can help to retain more information during conversations.

Barriers to active listening

Active listening is a hugely valuable communication tool, but there are some common barriers you need to be aware of and eliminate:

  1. Distractions - If a person’s attention is divided between the speaker and their surroundings, it will be difficult to stay focused and remain present in the conversation. With your mind's inclination to wander up to 47% of the time, keep temptations at bay by disconnecting from notifications, and placing yourself in quiet surroundings.

  2. Preconceived ideas and perceptions - When certain assumptions are already held, it can be difficult for a person to truly listen to and consider the other person’s point of view. Whether you intend to or not, it is likely that you are bringing your own ideas and beliefs to the table, which makes it hard to relate to the speaker's point of view and comprehend their position. Additionally, instead of listening to understand, most of the time is spent forming your own argument in defence of your position.

  3. Emotions - Strong emotions, both positive and negative, can impede a person’s ability to actively listen. Try and focus on the message being delivered, not the person delivering it.

  4. Lack of interest - If a person is not interested in the conversation or the speaker is rambling on, it can be difficult for them to maintain focus and actively listen. Think about why you are having the conversation - the benefits or the outcome you want to achieve to bring you back on track.

  5. Focusing on the wrong thing - If you are discussing an issue our tendency is to jump in straight away with solutions to eliminate the problem where you should be taking the time to listen to all of the relevant ins and outs of the situation before exploring solutions. If you feel tempted to jump in, write your thought down and re-focus back to the speaker. You can then revisit your notes when the speaker has finished.

Steps to active listening

You will move through the following three steps when you listen actively:

  1. Prior to engaging in a conversation, you should focus on the subject of the discussion. For instance, you could inquire as to what the other person wants to talk about. This allows you to transition from the prior topic to the new one – and to stop thinking about the task that you were previously occupied with.

  2. Paying attention to both the words being spoken and the non-verbal cues given off by the speaker is critical. Research has revealed that as much as 55% of total communication is non-verbal, so it is necessary to not only focus on what is being said but also pay attention to body language.

  3. Show that you are actively listening to the speaker by giving them feedback. Restating their main points will help you better comprehend what you have been told. It is important to keep in mind that you should not be making any judgments or expressing opinions when you are doing this; you should simply be understanding.

Active listening techniques

Using these tools and techniques will take you from a distracted communicator to an actively engaged listener.

Get your environment right

Optimising your environment for active listening means being free of all distractions so you can solely focus on the person you are listening to. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Set your devices to 'do not disturb' or turned off all notifications. Put your computer to sleep and set your phone face down. You may even set a 'no device' rule for all participants in meetings that require your full attention.

  • Try and find a quiet space away from others if communicating face-to-face. If online, close the door to your work area and ask those around you to avoid interrupting you for the duration of the discussion.

  • Try and re-focus yourself away from your thoughts when your mind starts to wander. If you do have something distracting your thoughts, note it down so you can attend to it later and zone back in on your communication partner. Remember, you should not be thinking of how you will respond to the other person.

  • Be fully present by attuning all senses to the speaker - this means sight, sound etc. to give your full attention.

  • If you are in the middle of a challenging situation that is 'taking up your headspace' and making it difficult to concentrate on the speaker, you can usually politely and professionally defer them by explaining that you have a situation that is occupying your thoughts, that you want to listen to what they have to say without distraction and therefore is it possible to reconnect when you are not so preoccupied.

Use your non-verbal communication to show your interest and attention

A researcher of body language, Albert Mehrabian found that 55% of communication is non-verbal and the actual words we use only 7%! So as well as closely listening to the words being sent, pay attention to the speaker's body language. For example, if they are speaking quickly they may be nervous or unsure of what they are saying, if they are slow they might be tired or choosing their words carefully. Be alert if the person's non-verbal communication is not matching their verbal communication - this can indicate that they are not saying what they really mean and should be explored further.

Conversely, your non-verbal behaviours are just as important. You can show your interest and focus by doing the following:

  • Use friendly eye contact - Psychologists indicate that three seconds before looking away is ideal in Western cultures. This length of time indicates you are interested without making the other person uncomfortable.

  • Lean in slightly - Leaning forward shows you are engaged with the speaker and the information they are delivering.

  • Give positive facial expressions - Smiling slightly and nodding are positive - avoid showing negative expressions like frowning or looking away.

  • Keep your body relaxed with your arms resting in front of you. Crossing your arms, playing with your hair or resting your chin on your hand could signal a lack of interest, boredom or impatience.

Be patient and don't interrupt

If someone is slower in their speech or takes pauses, resist the urge to finish their sentences for them or fill the silence with your own thoughts or stories. Listen to understand, not respond - remember don't prepare a reply in your head while the other person has the floor. Don't reply while the other person is in the midst of communicating. Wait for an indication that it is your turn to speak. Also, don't change the subject abruptly as this could be perceived as being bored or impatience.

If you are struggling to wait your turn, put your hand over your mouth in a natural way - this is a reminder to yourself to wait your turn. Alternatively quickly jot down your thought or question to get it off your mind.

Ask open questions and summarise what you have heard

Open-ended questions are those that can't be answered with a quick yes or no (these are called closed questions). Closed questions shut down a conversation and limit the amount of information that you acquire, which is not ideal. After waiting until the speaker has finished, start clarifying what you have heard and probe for additional details by asking open-ended questions. Asking open-ended questions also shows that you are interested in keeping the conversation flowing and that you are engaged.

Consider the difference between asking "Were you happy with the report I provided" versus "What else could I have done with the report to improve it".

Check that you have understood correctly before moving on by summarising what you have heard and repeating it back to the speaker so they have the opportunity to make corrections. You can start your summary by saying things like "My understanding is that ...." or "It sounds like you are saying that..." Summarising and reflecting back on what has been said makes the other person feel validated and minimises the chances of miscommunication.

Don't be judgemental

Enter the conversation with an open mind. Remain neutral and non-judgemental because this will encourage the other person to continue sharing their thoughts. They feel safe in the knowledge that they won't be received negatively. Try and be mindful when you are listening, of judgmental or of bias perceptions, that are entering your thoughts. Listen with empathy and with a genuine interest in hearing the speaker's perspective.

Remember the five A's of active listening

As you put active listening into practice, remember these five A's to guide you. They are:

  1. Attitude - Enter into conversations with an open mind and a positive attitude. Be genuinely interested in understanding fully what the other person is saying.

  2. Attention - Pay full attention to the speaker by eliminating distractions and giving your full attention to the other person. Give verbal and non-verbal cues to show that you are engaged with the conversation.

  3. Adjustment - Be flexible and go with the flow of the conversation rather than trying to force the conversation in the direction you would like it.

  4. Accepting - Accept the other person's opinions and feelings with an open mind. Avoid being judgmental, and be willing to learn from others.

  5. Aware - Be aware of your own biases and beliefs that may prevent you from understanding the other person's viewpoint. Try to be flexible and open to new ideas.

Wrapping up

On the surface, listening seems like a pretty basic activity that we all; engage in every day. It's simple, right?!? But the reality is that to listen to understand you need to be practising active listening. You need to be removing barriers that can hinder your ability to fully comprehend the other person. Active listening will ensure you are not just hearing, you are understanding, processing, responding appropriately and retaining the information delivered to you. This is when genuine relationships are formed, collaboration occurs, and problems are solved.

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