What is Active Listening?
Ask people what they think is active listening, and here’s what you’ll often hear:
- Active listening is making eye contact and nodding your head.
- Active listening is positive open facial expressions and body language.
- Active listening is stopping whatever you’re doing, to focus on the person talking.
- Active listening is not interrupting.
- Active listening is using some kind of sound to indicate that you’re still with the person i.e. ‘mmm’ or ‘mmm hmmm’ (check out www.urbandictionary.com for meanings).
- Active listening is paraphrasing what the other person has said.
These points are all great answers and certainly part of active listening.
Defining Listening and Active Together
Listening can be defined as paying attention to hear sounds and what someone is saying. (By the way, as an additional note, hearing can be defined as the sense awareness of sound.) Active can be defined as engagement and movement. So what is active listening? Engaging one’s attention to hear what someone is saying to achieve movements towards…understanding. Real active listening is understanding.
With the result of real active listening being a movement towards some greater understanding, outlined below are common detractors.
- Negative Reciprocal Communication: Meeting a speaker’s complaint with a counter complaint or mutual indifference.
- Non-supportive Listening: Being defensive. Rationalizing or invalidating the speaker’s feelings. Minimizing the significance of the situation.
- Being Insensitive: Not looking beyond the words and behaviours to grasp their meanings. Taking remarks at face value.
- Premature Judgments: Not hearing the speaker out and just planning and deploying a counter attack.
How to Really Actively Listen?
In addition to the points outlined above on what many of us typically define as active listening, and avoiding the common detractors, outlined below are four approaches to achieve real active listening for understanding. When I mention ‘reality’ in these points, it’s about what is believed to be true and real by the holder of the point of view.
- Be Reciprocal: Recognize similarities in what is being said to your current understanding of reality.
- Be Empathetic: Project yourself into the speakers reality by imagining being in their experience.
- Be Interested: Get curious and ask questions to clarify your reality of the speakers reality and what they are saying.
- Be Responsive: Share your understanding of their reality and your own reality respectfully.
These can all be viewed as relatively simple points. Let’s remember though, simple still takes effort. I encourage you to test these points out yourself, especially if you’re in situations where understanding each other is missing. In these cases, chances are, you’re also missing real active listening.