January 25, 2011

Active Listening

"The proof of good listening is an appropriate response".-
Judi Brownell
Related article: Active Listening as an Anger Management Technique

Active listening
is the ability to clearly hear and understand the speaker but also requires the skill of picking up on unspoken messages or meanings.

Michael Hoppe defined active listening in his book, Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead [Centre for Creative Leadership, 2007] as involving: "...paying full and careful attention to the other person, avoiding premature judgment, reflective understanding, clarifying information, summarizing, and sharing."

1. Pay full and careful attention to the other person

Paying attention means concentrating on what the other person is saying and it takes a lot of concentration and determination. There are two big obstacles if you plan to practice good listening skills:
   ● Your ability to relax. Listening is an active process where you need to let go of your control and give all your attention to the person talking. If you are too stressed, you cannot give your 100% attention
    ● Your ability to shut down your inner dialogue and focus on the person who is talking.
All too often while in a conversation we tend to get ahead of the topic and spend a lot of mental energy in getting an answer together. When you thus focus on your inner self, you are missing out on the action happening outside of you.
Tip: If you are finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them - this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

2. Avoid premature judgment

In his book Improve Your Communication Skills [Kogan-Page, 2006], Alan Barker puts forward two reasons why people fail to listen. Firstly, people stop paying attention because they are too preoccupied working out a reply. Secondly, Barker believes that people are in a rush to advocate - to tell the other person what they think. If a person has not spent enough time gathering all the facts, then he may reach the wrong conclusions.

Interrupting is a waste of time. From the speaker's perspective, it can be irritating if he is part-way through his point and the listener begins to express her views. The speaker may not actually want the listener to solve his problem, he may simply want to share it. Premature judgment of the situation and moving to solution mode too soon may actually close down a conversation. A good listener will take time to challenge assumptions and uncover the true meaning and feeling behind statements.

Tip: Allow the speaker to finish! Don't interrupt with counter arguments!

3. Reflect understanding

Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said.
  ● Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. "What I'm hearing is." And "Sounds like you are saying" - are great ways to reflect back.
  ● Ask questions to clarify certain points. "What do you mean when you say." "Is this what you mean?"
  ● Summarize the speaker's comments periodically.
Tip: If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information. "I may not understand you correctly, and I find myself taking what you said personally. What I thought you just said is XXXXXXXXX; is that what you meant?"

4. Respond appropriately

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.
   ● Be honest in your response
    ● Assert your opinions respectfully

    ● Treat the other person as he or she would want to be treated

Building Active Listening Skills (IN STEPS)

Step 1: Understanding what is not Active Listening

Remember 5 Don’ts of Listening that can cause the anger reaction during communication:
A Silent listening
N Interruptions and not allowing the speaker to complete his or her thought
G Critical response and teaching – a response that expresses a form of criticism resulting from a natural tendency to judge, approve, or disapprove of a message received
E Advising. It should be given when requested.
Before offering advice , make sure:
  • that other person really wants to hear your suggestions
  • the other person is ready to accept it
  • your advice is correct
  • that receiver won’t blame you if advice doesn’t work
R Changing the subject or moving in a new direction during conversation

Step 2: Understanding Questioning during Active Listening

During active listening we ask for additional information to get a clear understanding before responding.
Questioning in active listening skills is more about the quality of the question.
Only one question should be asked at a time and, if necessary, unclear responses should be played back to check understanding. If there is something you do not understand, then ask your partner to rephrase, restate, or repeat the statement.
The two main approaches are to use open and probe questions.
Open questions are general not specific. They provide room for people to decide how they should be answered and encourage them to talk freely.
Open questions help to create an atmosphere of calm, for example:
● What do you feel about that?
● Tell me, why do you think that happened?
● Tell me, how did you handle that situation? 
Probe questions seek specific information on what has happened and why. They can:
● show interest and encouragement: “I see, and then what?”
● seek further information by asking “Why?” or “Why not?” or “ What do you mean?”
● reflect views: “Have I got the right impression, do you feel that..?”

Combine your questioning skills with body language because it will communicate an interest towards your partner. Make good eye contact. Face your partner and show the person you are their primary concern.

Step 3: Understanding Summarizing Technique

Summarizing involves rephrasing what the person has said in your own words.
The secret here is “in your own words” and without adding any justification or interpretation. Summarizing is a great technique because it develops a connection and builds intimacy in your relationship. The other person hears your summary of what he or she said and knows you understand or will then restate what you do misunderstand.

Here are some examples:

Paraphrase back what the other person has said with phrases such as:
● ” What I hear you saying is...” OR You can use a phrase like the following:
"I'm going to repeat in my own words what I just heard you say to make sure that I understand what you're saying. Please correct me if I misinterpret anything you've said."
● When someone criticizes you, refrain from reacting defensively using the next steps:
1. Hear them out, wait until she or he finish, look for a core of truth in what they’re saying
2. Agree with that using summarizing technique: “It is true that I leave my clothes on the floor.”
3. If you do not agree with another’s person’s point of view, acknowledge nojudgmentally that your view is different from theirs: “But I disagree with you when you say...”
When someone is speaking, wait until she or he finished before you begin to speak

Step 4: Empathizing (empathic listening and empathic response)

Empathizing identifies with speaker’s emotions and opinions. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know,
“I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.”
The listener conveys this message through words and non-verbal behaviours, including body language. The listener encourages the speaker to fully express herself or himself free of interruption, criticism or being told what to do. Empathic listening requires an actual acceptance of the speaker’s feelings, no matter how different they may be from the listener’s. Acceptance does not mean agreement; it does not mean the listener has to agree. It simply means showing personal acceptance and concern for the speaker’s point of view:
“I understand you and I am interested in being a resource to help you resolve this problem.”

Here is some examples of empathic responses:

● Use of brief responses like “ I see”, “Wow”, “OUCH”, “My Goodness”
● “ I can see that really hurts”
● “I know how important that was to you”
● “ I think I’ve felt that way too”

Responses like the following are not empathic responses:

“Don’t worry about it”
“It’s nothing to get so upset about”
“That is a silly way to feel”

Step 5: Practice with your partner!

Active listening does not come naturally – it is a learned skill. It is an active process that must be practiced and practiced. Mastering the art of active listening is similar to mastering the art of driving a car. In the beginning you learned the necessary skills, but you still really have to concentrate on every aspect of doing it, and continuing practice, driving becomes your second nature.
1. Find a subject on which you and your partner seem to disagree – a moral issue, philosophical or personal task
2. A makes a statement, B paraphrases the idea and feedback to A (only what B has heard without adding any interpretation or justification)
3. A responds to B whether the response was accurate or what change needs to be done
4. B then summarised the revised statement or uses right questions for clarifying information, again check till B and A understands correctly
5. B and A can reverse role and repeat the process
How do A and B feel? Is there A greater understanding? Do they feel better? How such techniques can be helpful in life?
We would like to finish this article with the quote by David Roush, National Juveline Detention Association, which states that active listening may not just clarify thinking and provide a necessary emotional release, but facilitates problem - solving :
"When in doubt about what to do, use active listening." 

Resources: http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm
Tower of Power, Joshua Uebergang,
Active Listening Skills Improve Communication, Ranjit Das, http://www.suite101.com/

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Many thanks for linking to our article on Active Listening at the foot of this blog. Unfortunately, there's a small error in the URL - it should be http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm (there's no i in the folder name CommSkll), so it woudl be great if you could update this!
    Best wishes
    Helena Smalman-Smith