Active Listening

Can active listening skills be taught? YES.  Active listening is one of the most critical skills for success in our professional and private lives. Good listening skills affect your ability to be effective at work and improve the quality of your relationships.

You would think that we would be good at listening since we do so much of it! Most of us are not, and research shows we only remember between 25 and 50 percent of what we hear, as described by Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. Therefore, if you talk with your boss, colleagues, customers, or spouse for ten minutes, they will only pay attention to half of what you say.

Similarly, you’re not receiving the whole message when a person gives you directions or provides information. Ideally, you capture the critical parts in your 25-50 percent, but what if that’s not possible?

We can all benefit from improving our listening skills. Being a better listener will improve your productivity, as well as your ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate. In addition, you will avoid misunderstandings and conflict. All of these are essential for workplace success!

Like any other skill, the way to improve your “active listening” is practice. 

The way to improve your listening skills is to practice “active listening.” Active listening involves making a conscious effort to listen to what someone says and what they mean.

You need to pay careful attention to the other person to do this.

When someone else is speaking, you cannot be distracted by what may be happening around you or by forming counterarguments. You cannot get bored and lose focus on what the other person is saying.

To improve your listening skills, make sure the other person knows you are paying attention to what they’re saying.

To appreciate the significance of this, ask yourself if you have ever been in a conversation where you wondered whether the other person was listening. There are times when you wonder if what you’re saying is getting through or even if it’s even worthwhile continuing. It feels like you’re talking to a brick wall and want to avoid it.

An acknowledgment can be as simple as nodding your head or saying, “uh-huh.” You don’t necessarily agree with the person, just showing that you pay attention. 

You need to respond to the speaker to encourage them to continue talking to get the information you need. While nodding and the odd uh-huh show interest, asking a question or summarizing what was said also indicates that you listen and understand what he said.

Active listening skills.

Maintain eye contact.

Trying to talk with someone while they scan the room, look at a computer screen, or look out the window is like trying to hit a moving target. To what extent do you get the other person’s attention? Half? A fifth? If the person were your child, you might say, “Look at me when I am talking to you,” but that’s not something we would say to our lovers, friends, colleagues, etc.

Eye contact is considered a core element of effective communication in most Western cultures. We look each other in the eye when we converse. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk across the room or from another room, but if the conversation drags on for too long, you (or the other person) will get up and move. A desire for better communication brings you together.

Turn to face your conversation partners when you are speaking with them. Set aside papers, books, the phone, and other distractions. Focus on them even if they don’t focus on you. Various emotions, such as shyness, uncertainty, shame, guilt, or cultural taboos, can inhibit eye contact in some people. Let the other person do their thing, but keep your eyes on yourself.

Be attentive

Now that you have made eye contact relax. Do not stare at the other person. You can occasionally look away and carry on as before. The important thing is to remain attentive. The dictionary defines attending as:

  • Be present
  • Give attention
  • Apply or direct yourself
  • Pay attention
  • Remain ready to serve

Remove distractions, such as background activity and noise, from your mind. Also, avoid becoming engrossed in the speaker’s accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distracting. Last but not least, don’t get distracted by your thoughts, feelings, or biases.

Attentive Listening

Keep an open mind.

It would help if you listened to what the other person said without judging or critiquing it. Feel alarmed by what the person says, but do not tell yourself, “Well, that was a stupid move.” The moment you engage in judgmental behavior, you’ve weakened your ability to listen.

Listen carefully without jumping to conclusions. Remember that the speaker expresses their inner thoughts and feelings through language. Only by listening will you discover what those thoughts and feelings are.

Don’t grab a sentence. Many people can’t slow their mental pace enough to listen effectively, so they try to speed up the other person by interrupting and finishing their sentences. They usually end up way off track because they follow their train of thought and don’t understand where the other person’s thoughts are going. 

Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.

Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information you are receiving. It doesn’t matter if it’s a literal picture or an arrangement of abstract concepts. If your brain is focused and your senses are alert, it will do the necessary work. Focus on, and remember keywords and phrases when listening for long stretches.

Whenever you have the chance to listen, don’t spend time planning what to say next. You can’t practice and listen at the same time. Pay attention only to what the other person says.

Be sure to listen to the speaker, even if you find it boring. Force yourself to remain focused

Don’t interrupt, and don’t impose your “solutions.”

It used to be taught to children that interrupting is rude. That message does not seem to be getting through anymore. On most talk shows and reality shows, loud, aggressive, in-your-face behavior appears at times to be encouraged. 

When you interrupt, you send a variety of messages. They include:

  • “I’m more valuable than you.”
  • “I have more interesting, accurate, and relevant things to say.”
  • “What you think doesn’t matter to me.”
  • “I don’t have time to listen to your opinion.”
  • “This is not a conversation, this is a contest, and I am going to win.”

Each of us thinks and speaks at a different pace. The onus falls on you if you are a quick thinker and an agile speaker to ease up on your speed for the slower, more thoughtful communicator or for the person having trouble expressing themselves.

It would help if you refrained from offering solutions to someone talking about a problem. Most of us don’t want your suggestions anyway. If we do, we’ll ask for them. For the most part, we prefer to find our solutions. Your involvement and listening will enable us to do so. I would suggest getting permission from the speaker somewhere down the line if you are bursting with a brilliant solution. Just ask, “Would you like to hear my ideas?”

interrupting speaker

Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.

It would be best to ask the speaker to explain something when you don’t understand it. However, it would be best to wait for the speaker to pause rather than interrupt. After that, say something like, “Hold on a second. I didn’t understand what you said.”

Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.

As long as you express those feelings through your facial expressions and words, you feel sad when someone expresses sadness and fear when they describe their fears, which will assure your effectiveness as a listener. Good listening is all about empathy.

Empathy requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and experience what it would be like to be them at that moment. But this isn’t easy. It requires effort and concentration. Nevertheless, it is a great and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else.

Give the speaker regular feedback.

Show that you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting on their feelings. “You must be thrilled!” “What a horrible ordeal for you!” “I see you’re confused.” If the speaker’s feelings are hidden or unclear, sometimes paraphrase the message’s content. Just nod and show your understanding with appropriate facial expressions and an occasional “hmm” or “uh-huh.”

It is essential to show the speaker that you are listening and following their train of thought – not imagining your fantasy while they speak.

You should constantly reiterate instructions and messages at work or home to understand them.

Pay attention to what isn’t said—to nonverbal cues.

The majority of direct communication is probably nonverbal if you exclude email. We learn a great deal about each other without even saying a word. The tone and cadence of a person’s voice can tell you almost as much about them as anything they say. 

An individual’s expressions around the eyes, mouth set, and shoulders slope can tell you very quickly whether they are enthusiastic, bored, or irritated face to face. Please don’t ignore them. The spoken words are only a tiny part of the message.