In today's world of high tech and high stress, communication is more important than ever, however we spend less and less time really listening to each other. Genuine, attentive listening has become rare.
Active listening skills can help build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding and avoid conflict. By becoming a better listener, you’ll improve your workplace productivity, as well as your ability to lead a team, persuade and negotiate.
Active listening definition
Active listening requires the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. You make a conscious effort to hear and understand the complete message being spoken, rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker.
In this article, we'll cover the following:
Listening is the most fundamental component of communication skills. Listening is not something that just happens, listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker.
Active listening is also about patience, listeners should not interrupt with questions or comments. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings, they should be given adequate time for that.
Various studies stress the importance of listening as a communication skill. The studies on average say we spend 70-80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.
Studies also confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners. Most of us are not very good at listening, research suggests that we remember less than 50% of what we hear in a conversation.
There are many important benefits of active listening, these include:
Good listeners actively endeavour to understand what others are really trying to say, regardless of how unclear the messages might be. Listening involves not only the effort to decode verbal messages, but also to interpret non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and physical posture.
Effective listeners make sure to let others know that they have been heard, and encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings fully.
You also need to show to the person speaking that you’re listening through non-verbal cues, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’. By providing this feedback the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and communicates more easily, openly and honestly.
Hearing is an accidental and automatic brain response to sound that requires no effort. We are surrounded by sounds most of the time. For example, we are accustomed to the sounds of cars, construction workers and so on. We hear those sounds and, unless we have a reason to do otherwise, we learn to ignore them.
Listening, on the other hand, is purposeful and focused rather than accidental. As a result, it requires motivation and effort. Listening, at its best, is active, focused, concentrated attention for the purpose of understanding the meanings expressed by a speaker.
Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages.
It’s a horrible feeling talking to someone and realising that they are not really listening. There are some simple steps you can take to let the speaker know you are actively listening, such as asking relevant questions, positive body language, nodding and maintaining eye contact.
The people are listening are likely to display at least some of these signs. However these signs may not be appropriate in all situations and across all cultures.
If listening were easy, and if all people went about it in the same way, the task for a public speaker would be much easier.
The people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. They listen to the message in order to learn how the speaker thinks and how they feel about their message. For instance, when people-oriented listeners listen to an interview with a famous musician, they are likely to be more curious about the musician as an individual than about music.
Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? It’s sometimes difficult for an action-oriented speaker to listen through the descriptions, evidence, and explanations with which a speaker builds his or her case.
For example, when you’re a passenger on an airplane, a flight attendant delivers a brief safety briefing. The flight attendant says only to buckle up so we can leave. An action-oriented listener finds buckling up a more compelling message than a message about the underlying reasons.
Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it’s accurate. Content-oriented listeners want to listen to well-developed information with solid explanations.
People using a time-oriented listening style prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. Time-oriented listeners can become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This kind of listener may be receptive for only a brief amount of time and may become rude or even hostile if the speaker expects a longer focus of attention.
To learn more about listening styles, read The Importance of Listening - Listening Styles
Here are some examples of statements and questions used with active listening:
Everyone has difficulty staying completely focused during a lengthy presentation or conversation, or even relatively brief messages. Some of the factors that interfere with good listening might exist beyond our control, but others are manageable. It’s helpful to be aware of these factors so that they interfere as little as possible with understanding the message. Here are some key barriers:
Noise is one of the biggest factors to interfere with listening; it can be defined as anything that interferes with your ability to attend to and understand a message. There are many kinds of noise, the four you are most likely to encounter in public speaking situations are: physical noise, psychological noise, physiological noise, and semantic noise.
A person can only maintain focused attention for a finite length of time. Many people argued that modern audiences have lost the ability to sustain attention to a message. Whether or not these concerns are well founded, you have probably noticed that even when your attention is glued to something in which you are deeply interested, every now and then you pause to do something else, such as getting a drink.
Good listening involves keeping an open mind and withholding judgment until the speaker has completed the message. Conversely, biased listening is characterized by jumping to conclusions; the biased listener believes, "I don’t need to listen because I already know this." Receiver biases can refer to two things: biases with reference to the speaker and preconceived ideas and opinions about the topic or message. Everyone has biases but good listeners hold them in check while listening.
This is the fear that you might be unable to understand the message or process the information correctly or be able to adapt your thinking to include the new information coherently. In some situations, you might worry that the information presented will be too complex for you to understand fully.
Tips to help you develop effective listening skills.
Talking to someone while they scan the room, study a computer screen, or gaze out the window is like trying to hit a moving target. How much of the person's divided attention you are actually getting? Fifty percent? Five percent?
In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered a basic ingredient of effective communication. When we talk, we look each other in the eye. Do your conversational partners the courtesy of turning to face them. Put aside papers, books, the phone and other distractions. Look at them, even if they don't look at you. Shyness, uncertainty or other emotions, along with cultural taboos, can inhibit eye contact in some people under some circumstances.
Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognise that non-verbal communication is very powerful. In order to be attentive you’ll:
Mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise. In addition, try not to focus on the speaker's accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distractions. Finally, don't be distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases.
Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things she tells you. If what she says alarms you, go ahead and feel alarmed, but don't say to yourself, "Well, that was a stupid move." As soon as you indulge in judgmental bemusements, you've compromised your effectiveness as a listener.
Listen without jumping to conclusions and don’t interrupt to finish their sentences. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside her brain. You don't know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you'll find out is by listening.
Children used to be taught that it's rude to interrupt. I'm not sure that message is getting across anymore. Certainly the opposite is being modelled on the majority of talk shows and reality programs, where loud, aggressive, in-your-face behaviour is condoned, if not encouraged.
Interrupting sends a variety of messages:
We all think and speak at different rates. If you are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on you to relax your pace for the slower, more thoughtful communicator—or for the guy who has trouble expressing himself.
When you don't understand something, of course you should ask the speaker to explain it to you. But rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses. Then say something like, "Back up a second. I didn't understand what you just said about…"
When the person speaking has finished talking, ask questions relevant to what they are saying – try not to lead people in directions that have nothing to do with where they thought they were going. Sometimes we work our way back to the original topic, but very often we don't.
You can also summarise the conversation to make sure you understand all the person is trying to say – this works well at networking events at the end of conversations, it also gives you an excuse to move onto another conversation.
Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be her at that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it is a generous and helpful thing to do, and it facilitates communication like nothing else does.
Show that you understand where the speaker is coming from by reflecting the speaker's feelings. If the speaker's feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message. Or just nod and show your understanding through appropriate facial expressions and an occasional well-timed "uh huh."
The majority of face-to-face communication is non-verbal. We get a great deal of information about each other without saying a word. When face to face with a person, you can detect enthusiasm, boredom, or irritation very quickly in the expression around the eyes, the set of the mouth, the slope of the shoulders. These are clues you can't ignore. When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.
To read these listening tips in more detail, visit 10 Steps To Effective Listening
You can practice your listening skills with realistic virtual exercises. For example, with the VirtualSpeech VR experiences, you can get scored on your eye contact, memory of the conversation and more. VR opens up new opportunities to practice active listening skills at virtual networking events, team meetings, conferences and more.
For a week, try concluding every conversation in which information is exchanged with a summary. In conversations that result in agreements about future activities, summarising will ensure accurate follow-through.