Active listening techniques help us to absorb, understand, remember, and respond to what we’re told. This includes non-judgment, reflection, paying attention, seeking clarification, summarizing, and possibly sharing your own experience.
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Many marriage counsellors and workplace mediators have experienced the following: someone tells them earnestly that they want to become better communicators, and yet they are useless at actually listening to others. Why? Because they believe that a good communicator is someone who is good at making people hear them, instead of someone who is good at hearing other people. Big difference!
If you approach any conversation with the unspoken goal of getting others to listen to you, you’ve only got half of the puzzle. The biggest impediment to people doing “active listening” is the mistaken idea that they are already doing it. Blame it on our generally attention deficient society, or on the fact that none of us are ever deliberately taught this skill, but active listening is hard. It takes effort.
Active listening means you give your full and total attention to the speaker, and listen with the intention of absorbing, comprehending, responding to, and remembering what you’ve been told. It’s not just receiving a message, but taking that message, processing it, and doing something with it. And this applies to all of the message, including the nonverbal parts (the meaning conveyed in tone of voice, body language, etc.), the words, and the content hidden behind the words.
We’ve already established that the goal of conversation is not to serve your ego, find the winner/victor or hog the limelight. It’s to connect, to establish trust, to learn something, or to encourage cooperative and harmonious relationships. For ease, we can break down the skill of active listening into six separate skills, although in reality these all blend into one another:
This means keeping interpretations and evaluations out of the picture. To listen, you want to receive what the other person is transmitting—your input is not required. No arguing, criticizing, or convincing. Observe rather than evaluate. This is challenging if the message you’re being sent contains upsetting or triggering information, but it’s up to you to try not go on the defensive. Whatever your position, calmly keep it to yourself until it’s your turn to speak. Then use I statements and stick to facts rather than value judgments.
Show that you’re receiving the message loud and clear and that you’re on the same page. If they’re talking slowly and quietly, mirror them by doing the same. If they’re talking in formal, professional terms, acknowledge this and follow suit. You might like to gently reflect their posture, too. Repeat their own phrases and terms back to you to show that you’re “speaking their language”—literally.
Don’t assume understanding. Literally ask, “Have I got that right?” to check your comprehension, or paraphrase without adding extra data to reiterate what they’re sharing. If someone says, “But I keep asking, and nobody listens! That’s why I’m angry!” you can say, “So you’re saying that you’ve raised this issue before, and it was ignored in the past? This is not the first complaint, right?” This gets people to say “yes,” which creates the feeling of you both being on the same page. That feeling of commonality and understanding is a powerful springboard to reconciliation. It’s less important to actively add to what they’re saying.
Pause after people speak to show that you aren’t trying to jump in and blurt your opinion on what they’ve shared, and practice compassionate, accepting body language (“open” gestures and warm tone of voice). Don’t be that person who isn’t paying attention because they’re too busy thinking what they’ll say as soon as the other person shuts up! This habit instantly puts people on the defensive and signals disrespect—and it’s more noticeable than you think. Make eye contact and whatever you do, don’t get distracted by phones, screens, or other people passing by. Stay present.
It’s not a problem to misunderstand the other person or be unclear about their position. It’s only a problem when these misunderstandings are not clarified. Ask questions rather than assume, since this demonstrates willingness to genuinely understand their position. Keep questions respectful and open-ended without putting words into people’s mouths. “Wait just a second, I don’t think I follow you. Can you go back to the part about your cousin and explain again how he fits into the story?”
As long as you frame your curiosity and misunderstanding as respectful rather than bringing in judgment (i.e., “You’re not making sense. What are you talking about?”), then the other person will feel heard and validated. Even if you do understand, carefully fleshing out the details shows that you’re not barging ahead with your own theories and assumptions. Even if you feel you know everything already, it’s good to reiterate. “Okay, so let me just get clear on the whole story from the beginning . . .”
Revisit the main themes of what’s been communicated, again without letting judgment or evaluation enter. Here you can make use of the “third story” technique or imagine a neutral observer simply laying out the objective facts. Summarizing helps you put shape to issues and stay focused on one idea at a time. It gives you a chance to convey your understanding and check with the other person that you are gradually finding a shared position on which you can agree.
“So let’s see now. Melanie feels that she was explicitly asked to play a more active parenting role with her stepson Johnny, but Johnny’s mother is saying that Melanie is overstepping and that her contribution is not required. Johnny’s father is staying out of things, but it seems like both women are unhappy about this, as they want him to ‘pick a side.’ It seems to me like they both feel hurt and unsupported in this disagreement. They both want an apology, but neither wants to give an apology to the other. Have I got that about right?”
This is done only once the other person feels sufficiently listened to. Sharing your own thoughts, feelings, suggestions, and perceptions can help the conversation along, but only if it’s creating harmony and understanding rather than invalidating the other person’s message. Talk about a similar experience you’ve had, share a slightly vulnerable side of yourself, or offer a conciliatory gesture. But again, if you share your own view before fully understanding the other person’s, it’s unlikely to come across well. “Not many people know this, but last year my wife and I experienced a miscarriage too, so I can understand to some degree how you must be feeling right now.”
In disagreements or conflicts, many of us tend to focus on what is wrong or lacking in the other person, unconsciously assuming that our approach is already perfect, and they’re the ones that need to change. We imagine that improving our conversation skills comes down to convincing them to see our point of view, without ever realizing the irony in this, and that we have consistently dismissed their point of view.
We need simple humility and honesty to see the ways we are not in fact the skillful listeners we like to think we are.
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