Listening to others is something we all do every day, but how actively and effectively we are involved in the process can vary greatly. Until I started training to become a counsellor, listening wasn’t something I had given much thought to, it didn’t seem to be something that I would consider a skill or a deficit. However, the more I learned about the impact of active listening and the detrimental impact of distant or incomplete listening can have, I started to appreciate the power of listening and took steps to develop my skills as a listener.
Think of how many times you have interrupted a friend or colleague mid-sentence as you couldn’t wait to make your point, or even if you don’t interrupt you mind had wondered onto your next point, the argument you had last night with your partner or what you’re going to have for dinner. When we listen in this way, not only do we miss out on fully understanding those we communicate with, but we also leave them feeling unheard and potentially hurt and dismissed by the breakdown of our attention. Our relationships can suffer and we can approach many tasks in life missing vital pieces of information.
The way a counsellor may listening to their client will certainly vary from how we will or should listen to our friends or colleagues but there are certainty skills we can take from therapists training which will help to improve our listening skills, increase what we can take from everyday conversations and help those we listen to feel respected, heard and valued.
Active listening means that you not only make a conscious effort to hear what the person is saying but to also attempt to understand the fuller message the person is presenting. Mindtools.com put together the below useful pointers of how to make our listening more active.
How to become an Active Listener
There are five key active listening techniques. They all help you ensure that you hear the other person, and that the other person knows you are hearing what they say.
1. Pay Attention
Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognise 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 i.e. facial expression, body posture.
2. Show That You’re Listening
Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention.
• Nod occasionally.
• Smile and use other facial expressions.
• Note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting.
• 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 what is being said and ask questions.
• Reflect 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?”
• Summarise the speaker’s comments periodically.
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 a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.
• Be candid, open, and honest in your response.
• Assert your opinions respectfully.
• Treat the other person in a way that you think he or she would want to be treated.
Integrating some of the above points into your listening practice will have significantly positive impacts on the quality of your conversations and even your relationships.