How to Engage in Active Listening

How many times have you engaged in a conversation where you were simply not being heard by the other person? How did it make you feel? Frustrated? Angry?

In both your personal and professional lives, maintaining good communication is paramount to building effective and productive relationships with others. An integral part of good communication includes being an active listener.

Why is active listening important?
Effective listening is one of the most important skills you can develop. Developing these skills will help you better understand what people are really saying which will significantly decrease those misunderstandings that so often lead to conflict. Additionally, with information comes power. If you can learn to become an active listener, you will ultimately improve your ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate outcomes both at home and at work. Finally, when you actively pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal information being conveyed by pertinent people such as your family members, friends, coworkers, bosses, or clients, you will find it easier to work with them to build rapport, show support, and resolve problems in productive and rewarding ways.

How can you engage in active listening?
To develop good listening skills, follow these techniques.

(1)  Be attentive: Maintain a posture of interest by standing or sitting up straight. Keep good eye contact throughout the conversation and don’t let yourself become distracted.

(2)  Ask pertinent questions and rephrase key points that are made: When the speaker finishes talking, engage him or her in follow-up questions or comments to demonstrate interest and confirm your understanding of what was being said. Ask such follow up questions as “Do you mean that…?” and follow-up statements as “It is my understanding that what you said is…” Convey your questions and summaries in a way that suggests a clear desire to understand and not one that applies any form of judgement – good or bad.

(3)  Don’t interrupt: Allow the speaker to express their thoughts before making your comments or asking questions. Control your desire to do the talking. There is no way you can listen while speaking. Taking notes as the person speaks is a good way to stay focused and remember what is being said.

(4)  Be open and receptive: Refrain from forming an opinion or your response while the person is speaking. Once your mind gets distracted, it is difficult to bring it back to the focus of the person’s message. Be willing to accept new ideas and information. Make this an opportunity to learn.

(5)  Understand before responding: Wait until you clearly understand what a person is saying before you reply.

(6)  Be respectful: Demonstrate respect for the individual who is talking by refraining from discourteous nonverbal behaviors such as checking your cell phone, glancing at the clock, letting your eyes wander, or engaging in sidebar activities. These actions signal a lack of interest to someone who is trying to relate an important point.

(7)  Engage in meaningful dialogue: In your response to the speaker, make a connection with the individual by asking for his or her opinions or ideas on a subject. Keep your conversation open and the information flowing. The more you know, the better the chance your conversation will end with a positive outcome.

(8)  Watch for nonverbal cues: During the conversation, pay attention to the speaker’s facial expressions and tone of voice. Watch for body language, including the person’s posture, position to you, and the folding of arms. These actions may reveal hidden feelings or opinions not fully expressed by the speaker. In most cases, non-verbal cues will very likely provide you greater insights into the speaker’s true message.

What are the barriers to good listening?
All of us may come to a conversation with certain barriers that, if left unchecked, can hamper our ability to effectively listen. These barriers include:

(1)  Our state of mind: If we are fearful, worried, or angry about the encounter or the person, it can cause us to react to our emotions instead of act or respond to the conversation at hand.

(2)  Time on task: When we have limited time to engage in the conversation, we are more likely to dismiss key pieces of important information and focus on ending our encounter within the prescribed timeline.

(3)  Personal biases or prejudices: For whatever reason, we may have stereotypical attitudes that cause us to be unwilling or unable to give our speaker the time needed to hear them out.

(4)  Background distractions: If we speak to someone in a noisy setting or where lots of distracting things are going on, it may be difficult for us to hear the conversation because of the noise or maintain focus because of background commotion.

(5)  Foreign accent: When we engage with someone who has a thick foreign accent or inability to communicate well in our language, we can find it challenging to fully understand or maintain interest in what the person is saying.

To develop your active listening skills, practice these techniques until they become a natural part of your everyday conversations with others.  Establish concrete strategies to conquer any barriers and focus on making this a WIN for both parties.

“Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”-Stephen R. Covey

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Written by: Patricia K. Flanigan, Smart Strategies for Successful Living

Patricia K. Flanigan has worked in higher education for over 28 years. She holds a doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne as well as a M.A.  in Latin American Studies and B.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before retiring and moving to Idaho in 2015, she served as the dean of online education and learning resources at Saddleback College, a large community college in Southern California. She currently consults in higher education, volunteers for AARP, writes for a local magazine, and serves as an Affiliate Faculty member at Boise State University  and on the Board for LEARN Idaho.  Since February 2017, she has been the founding director for Smart Strategies for Successful Living, a community-based website designed to promote quality aging.  As an educator, her focus is to inspire others to live and age well.