Communication skills: 5 key steps to Active Listening
Have you ever been telling a story only to discover that, halfway through what you believed was fascinating information, the person to whom you were speaking to is seemingly not actually paying attention to what you are saying? As annoying as this may be perhaps you have also been on the other end and have spent less time listening to a friend’s story and more time coming up with your next interjection in the conversation. Both of these situations are examples of times in which one party is not actively listening to the other.
What is active listening?
Originally developed in the context of therapeutic interviews, active listening involves listening for meaning, not just listening to the words that are spoken, and its principles can be applied to workplace communications. Active listening demonstrates your undivided attention, encourages the other party to continue speaking, and can build rapport and understanding between you and the speaker.
There are five key aspects of becoming an active listener.
1. Pay close attention
Paying attention to what an individual is saying requires you give the speaker your undivided attention. Let the speaker know that you are listening by using acknowledgments that help add proof that you are truly listening.
• Stop any mental chatter
• Don’t start preparing your response or rebuttal while the other person is talking
• Make sure your environment doesn’t distract you
• Notice the speaker’s body language and tone of voice – what are the non-verbal messages telling you?
• If you are in a group, avoid side conversations
2. Demonstrate physically that you are listening
Because so much of our communication happens digitally, we often forget how much we say without saying anything at all. Attentive body language signals that you are listening to the speaker.
• Look the speaker in the eyes
• Lean forward slightly to convey interest
• Nod your head from time to time
• Match your facial expressions with the information being given to you
• Remain open and relaxed rather than closed and tense
3. Check for understanding
Our personal experiences, our perceptions, and our feelings influence the way that we hear. This means that it is possible for information to get mistranslated or misinterpreted causing us to hear a message that was not intended. To avoid confusion, before responding, it is good practice to check for understanding using these tools.
• Use reflecting and paraphrasing to ensure you have understood the speaker’s message correctly. Try using phrases such as, “If I am hearing you correctly, you’re saying…”–
• Ask follow up questions to help clarify the speaker’s meaning. Try, “Can you tell me more about…?” or, “What did you mean when you said…?”
• Summarise what you have heard occasionally
4. Respond Appropriately
When you are actively listening, you are showing your respect for the speaker as well as gaining the information that you need to form your response once the speaker has finished communicating their message. Once you have received and clarified the message, it is now time to form your reply.
When expressing your thoughts:
• Be honest and open – when it comes to communication, honesty truly is the best policy
• Be respectful – whilst it is important to be honest, remain professional and fair while sharing your opinions
• Be thorough – refer back to specific points the speaker made
5. Don’t interrupt!
Following these tips involves making small interjections to ensure the speaker knows you are listening and understanding their message, not interrupting in order to speak yourself. Interrupting the speaker does nothing but limit your chance of understanding by causing them to become frustrated and possibly forget or accidentally exclude important information.