Active Listening Techniques

When you are actively listening, you are truly focusing on what is being communicated, verbally and non-verbally, without allowing internal or external distractions, or pre-conceptions, to interfere. Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to make a concentrated effort to not only hear the words being said, but to try and understand the whole message being communicated. 

Opinions as to what constitutes “active listening” vary somewhat. Some define it strictly as simply restating the speakers’ words back to them as a question, while others focused more on giving non-verbal cues to the speaker to let them know you are paying attention, which encourages the speaker to continue. Interpreting body language of the speaker, and using your body language to indicate you understand and are listening, are also mentioned as important elements to practice for active listening. Successfully employing active listening may result in a discussion that concludes in “agreeing to disagree” on issues that aren’t mission-critical. All definitions concur that true communication isn’t about convincing others to agree with us – it is about understanding each other.

Why is Active Listening Important?
How well you listen directly impacts your job effectiveness and the success of your relationships with other people. By employing active listening techniques your communications will be more productive, helping you to accomplish tasks & goals. You will also become more adept at avoiding conflicts & misunderstandings and at inspiring trust & respect. By listening to someone you manage, you also learn what is important to them, enabling you to reward them with the kinds of things that motivate them, which in turn benefits you both.

Challenges to Active Listening
Here is a list of some common barriers that can prevent us from listening attentively:
• Allowing yourself to become unnecessarily distracted by what is going on around you;
• Developing comments or counter-arguments you'll make when the other person stops talking;
• Getting bored and losing track of what the other person is saying;
• “Trigger” words or phrases which cause reactions in you. Your responses can range from making your attention wander to completely blocking out what the other person is saying. (Note also when words or phrases you use cause these reactions in others.) ;
• Allowing your emotional responses to what is being said to prevent listening;
• Impatience or inattention, whether displayed by your body language or your words;
• Seeing casual conversations as a complete waste of time, when they can be used to foster your understanding of each other;
• Misunderstandings due to cultural differences or assumptions;
• Personal interpretations, beliefs, attitudes, biases, or prejudices;
• Drawing attention away from the other person and onto you, or making it about you;
• Interrupting instead of waiting until the other person is finished speaking;
• Assuming others are trying to engage in argument or trying to influence your behavior, even when they are not;
• Giving an inappropriate response, instead of demonstrating your understanding of what was said or asked;
• Instead of paraphrasing to show comprehension, purposely distorting what someone is saying to try and “win” the argument;
• Not focusing attention and maintaining eye contact sufficiently to let the other person know you are listening;
• Over-using active listening techniques to the point where the individual feels you are being phony or patronizing.

Due to several of the factors above, the listener and speaker may ascribe different meanings to the same words or statements. Add into this that we all have different memories as frames of reference, and it is no wonder that communication is challenging. Learning to actively listen is the best way for us to make real progress in all of our relationships.

In tense situations, active listening becomes very difficult. Individuals in conflict often contradict one another. Trying phrases like "You seem angry…," or "You seem frustrated…”, may be effective, or may just result in denial of the emotions. Don’t engage in heated arguments that challenge the validity of the other person's positions. Remain calm and continue listening as much as possible. This increases the possibility of working together and resolving the conflict at some point, whether then or in the future.

We’d all like to think we listen effectively, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know we could be better listeners. Most of us have never learned the skills or developed the habits to make us more effective listeners. Just as with other learned skills, using or writing down information immediately after receiving it enhances our retention.

Start chipping away at those bad habits, beginning with the tendency most of us have of waiting to speak rather than actively listening. I think you’ll be amazed at what a difference that makes. Consider creating a list of your own barriers to active listening to begin working on. You’ll know you’re successful by the improvements in your relationships and your understanding of others.

Helpful Techniques for Active Listening
In addition to overcoming challenges to active listening described in the section above, nodding and "uh-huhing" says you're interested. Using appropriately-timed and pertinent comments or questions to confirm what you’ve heard shows that you’ve also understood. Re-stating what you have heard, using your own words and getting their feedback, helps verify the understanding of both parties.

More tips for improving active listening skills: 
• Repeat their words mentally as they say them to increase retention and stay focused;
• Give the speaker your full concentration;
• Use facial expressions and posture to show interest (smiling, lifting eyebrows, leaning forward, etc.);
• Pay close attention to the speaker's body language, and make sure you are respecting their personal boundaries;
• Give the speaker genuine encouragement when needed with words like “really”, “that’s interesting,” or “What happened next?”;
• Periodically use clarifying prefaces to phrases like, "Am I hearing you correctly…?", "It sounds like you’re saying,…",  and “What did you mean when you said...?" to show interest and promote common understanding.
• Avoid questions that directly challenge what the speaker is saying, to prevent them from becoming defensive; 
• Be sincere and respectful;
• Try not to think about what you’re going to say next;
• Don’t anticipate what the speaker is going to say next, or assume you know what they are thinking;
• Wait until they’re finished before forming an opinion or responding;
• Listen with compassion and try not to pre-judge, just as you’d want them to do for you; 
• Unless specifically asked for advice, or asked how you have handled a similar situation, don’t volunteer it;
• Don’t change the subject or shift to another topic before they are finished speaking about their current subject;
• Remind yourself, as often as necessary, that your objective is to truly listen to what the other person is saying without interrupting;

It is generally accepted that we can hear four times faster than we can talk, giving us plenty of time to absorb and process what we are hearing. By saving your questions or comments for when the speaker is done talking, you may find that they’ve answered your question without you needing to interrupt to ask them. Although there are times when you have to interrupt someone, doing so unnecessarily shows that you are not willing to listen.

Try to appropriately match your responses to the particular situation. With people you manage, in addition to general conversations you will also be involved in coaching employees in new skills and procedures, and possibly involved in counseling them in problems involving behavior, attitude or motivation. Remember that the tips above still apply to these situations. 

Practice Makes Perfect?
…Not likely, as no two people are exactly alike, and our behaviors, thoughts and feelings can shift in an instant. Fortunately most of us have some discernible patterns that make communication easier, but we can’t definitively know what any of us will do or say at any given moment when faced with a given set of circumstances. What someone says compared with what we hear can be totally different. And for a variety of reasons, there are people and personalities that try our patience. While these factors make active listening challenging, practicing can bring us closer to common ground.

The good news is that you’ll probably have no shortage of opportunities to practice and improve your active listening skills. But if you find that you’re looking for more practice opportunities, try asking someone, “What’s new?” or a variation of that, and you’ll get most people talking. Use the active listening tools, but go a little easy with the verbal encouragement, head nodding and facial expressions if you are not already using them. Continually saying, “Really?” while leaning forward, nodding your head, raising your eyebrows, and staring intently into their eyes, will cause more people to run than to open up to you. When people discover that you’re listening to them, that will probably be scary enough.

Learning to be proficient at active listening takes conscious effort and practice if you want to break poor listening habits. A positive attitude really makes a difference in the outcome of your endeavors. The efforts will definitely pay off – you’ll make fewer mistakes, have fewer misunderstandings, and instructions and directions will be communicated more clearly – all of which will ultimately save you a lot of time.

You may also be interested in viewing previous articles entitled, Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations16 Classic Communication Mistakes and What Can You Do When Communication Fails? for more ideas on how to better handle difficult communication.

Adam Irby