As it turns out, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. If our auditory system is intact, hearing means our ear drums pick up sound waves and vibrations and turn them into electrical signals to the brain. This differs from actually listening, which is an important communication skill. And like all skills, listening requires practice and discipline to master.
Active listening is defined by the “The Business Dictionary” as:
The act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech. Active listening is an important communication skill, and it can involve making sounds that indicate attentiveness, as well as giving feedback in the form of a paraphrased rendition of what has been said by the other party for their confirmation.
Unlike hearing, active listening doesn’t just happen. It is mindful, attentive and deliberate. It uses all our senses and requires energy and focus. An active listener tries to comprehend the message a speaker is conveying, and to respond appropriately. The good news, according to John M. Grohol, Psy.D., is that anyone can become an active listener by employing certain techniques.
DOs of Active Listening:
- Pay Attention: Give the speaker your full attention, without distractions such as cellphones, TVs or side conversations.
- Show You Are Listening: Non-verbal cues indicate your attention (or lack thereof). Maintain eye contact, nod occasionally, use facial expressions to convey interest, and encourage the speaker with short verbal comments such as “Yes” and “I see”.
- Restate What You Hear: Every so often, state in your own words what you think the speaker is saying. “What I hear you saying is….”
- Ask for Clarification: Don’t assume that your understanding of the speaker’s meaning is correct. After restating, it is equally important to ask for clarification, such as “Is that what you meant?” or “What did you mean by…?”
DON’Ts of Active Listening:
- Don’t Judge: Naturally, our personal experiences can color the data we process. But an active listener is able to recognize and dismiss knee-jerk reactions such as judgements and assumptions in order to focus on the speaker’s message.
- Don’t Build Your Case: If you are preparing a witty comeback, planning your rebuttal or formulating a retort, you are not listening!
- Don’t Interrupt: Interruptions cause frustration, quell communication and limit understanding. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions or clarifying their meaning.
- Don’t Attack: Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. When it your turn to respond, be honest and respectful. Nothing is gained by attacking a speaker or their beliefs.
Active listening builds rapport and promotes mutual trust and understanding. It allows us to learn from others, experience different perspectives and connect with people on deeper level. In doing so, it improves relations in the home, the workplace and the community at large. Just imagine how our society could benefit if everyone practiced the techniques of active listening!