What is Active Listening?
Active listening means that we try to understand things from the speaker’s point of view. It includes letting the speaker know that we are listening and that we have understood what was said. This is not the same as hearing, which is a physical process, where sound enters the eardrum and messages are passed to the brain. Active listening can be described as an attitude that leads to listening to shared understanding.
When we make a decision to listen for total meaning, we listen for the content of what is being said as well as the attitude behind what is being said. Is the speaker happy, angry, excited, sad…or something else entirely?
Responding to Feelings
The content (the words spoken) is one thing, but the way that people feel really gives full value to the message. Responding to the speaker’s feelings adds an extra dimension of listening. Are they disgusted and angry or in love and excited? Perhaps they are ambivalent! These are all feelings that you can reply to in your part of the conversation.
Active listening means that we are also very conscious of the non-verbal aspects of the conversation.
- What are the speaker’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture telling us?
- Is their voice loud or shaky?
- Are they stressing certain points?
- Are they mumbling or having difficulty finding the words they want to say?
- Does their body language indicate that they are uncomfortable or feeling like their message is not being heard?
Active listeners watch for these cues and adjust their approach accordingly. Sometimes just taking one step back, or ceasing talking and getting the other person to talk to you instead, will be all it takes to ease the tension.
When you are listening to someone, these techniques will show a speaker that you are paying attention, providing you are genuine in using them.
Physical indicators include making eye contact, nodding your head from time to time, and leaning into the conversation.
You can also give verbal cues or use phrases such as “Uh-huh,” “Go on,” “Really!” and, “Then what?”
You can ask questions for clarification or use summarizing statements. Examples:
- “Do you mean they were charging $4.00 for just a cup of coffee?”
- “So after you got a cab, got to the store, and found the right sales clerk, what happened then?”