One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.
Bryant H McGill
The Four Components of Active Listening
Four essential components allow active listening to occur, and the onus for these is on the listener. These are acceptance, empathy, honesty, and specifics.
Acceptance is about having respect for the person you are talking to, not based on what they have to say, but instead based on the simple fact that they are a human being who has the right to express their thoughts. This acceptance should be as unconditional as possible, except that there may be instances where the beliefs or opinions expressed are so disgraceful to legality and morality that approval must be withdrawn.
Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. This encourages the other person to be less defensive and more open to further exploring their situation and revealing more of themselves.
This is usually interpreted as the listener’s ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on the listener’s frame of reference rather than a sense of what should be felt – which is sympathy, not empathy.
In other words, to empathize with the speaker, you should know how they feel because you have experienced the same or very similar feelings yourself. For example, you cannot properly have empathy with a suffering individual unless you have experienced a similar loss of a loved one.
Empathy may also be defined as the listener’s desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of their own experience, but this does not get to the heart of the matter. Genuine empathy is rare and wonderful and requires an honest emotional reaction in the listener based on personal experience.
This is self-explanatory. This refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener. This means that the listener is open about their reactions to what they have heard. This must necessarily come after the acceptance component, and once the speaker has divulged as much as they are going to. Honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker.
The aim is that sincerity on the part of the listener evokes candor in the speaker. When one person comes out from behind a facade, the other is more likely to do the same.
This refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities.
Often, a person who has a problem will avoid painful feelings by being abstract or impersonal. They may speak about general situations that “other people” experience without directly involving themselves or suggesting that they are in any way affected. For communication to be worthwhile, the listener should request that the speaker be more specific. This may necessitate a direct challenge to the speaker to open up personally and “own” the problem they are pussyfooting around. This could work two ways.
For these four components to work effectively, they should be evident in the listener. While some people may speak openly in the vain and unsubstantiated hope that their listener will respond correctly, others will require upfront signs that their words will be received as they would wish. This is a decidedly tough ask, especially in a business environment where the two people may be manager and employee and have little knowledge of how the other person usually behaves. In this case, it has more to do with the speaker’s intuitive assessment of the listener than with the listener’s ability to create the perfect listening persona.
Improving Your Active Listening Skills
The first step is to accept that improvement is possible and necessary. Once this has been done, there are specific skills that can be learned so that you can almost instantly become an active listener and more effective communicator. Practice, however, is the key to your success. Only through the repeated application of these skills will they become second nature to you.
Bear in mind that body language is a large part of active listening. You may be perfectly able to actively listen lying on your back on a bed with your eyes shut, but that will not convince the speaker that you are paying full attention and may cause them to be reserved with their information or not bother at all.
Face the speaker – It is crucial to adopt the correct physical attitude. Slouching in a chair facing a window while the speaker is placed to one side of you does not create the right impression. It would be best if you were sitting up straight, your body facing the speaker, and tilted slightly forward to show your interest through positive body language.
Maintain eye contact – This does not mean never blinking or looking away. There needs to be a comfortable and comforting degree of eye contact when two people are communicating. Where eye contact is broken, it should not be to take an interest in someone or something else. It is pretty obvious when this is happening. There is no magic formula for when to break eye contact, for how long, and where to look. Remember that eye contact will be governed by how genuinely interested you are in what the speaker is saying. If you have no interest or are not concentrating on active listening, you can be fairly confident that your eye contact level will be giving the game away.
Assess the emotion, not just the words – Active listening also involves actively analyzing the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Very often, words on their own are a poor guide as to how a person is feeling. Sometimes they are in direct contradiction. If communication is to be effective, it must be honest, so the goal of active listening is to decipher the truth of a situation; even if the speaker comes to you, don’t assume that they will be straight-talking. They may want you to look behind the words at their body language because they may need the truth coaxed out of them if it is too painful to merely utter.
Minimize external distractions – Trying to speak or listen when there are distractions around you is difficult. You need to turn off the TV, switch off the radio, stop reading, stop writing, and pay attention. The speaker must also cease any distracting activities.
Respond appropriately – If you are genuinely taking an interest and listening, this should take care of itself. However, do bear in mind that some people are less animated than others, and if you are like this, you may want to insert a few nods or verbal acknowledgments. It may help to say you understand or offer other spoken encouragements every so often. Be careful not to overdo it, though. Saying “wow,” “really?” and “fascinating” every few seconds can be distracting in itself, or it may seem false, as though you are sticking to some formula you read in a book. You can also ask questions, provided they do not interrupt the flow of the speaker’s thoughts.
Focus on the speaker – This means fighting the temptation to prepare what you will say while they are speaking. This can be difficult to resist, especially when the speaker says something that sparks a good response in us that we fear we will have forgotten by the time they finish speaking. If you do want to recall a point they have made, try remembering just one trigger word that will help, rather than working out your whole reply in your head in advance. Remember that the conversation will usually follow a logical flow once the speaker has finished, so there should be no need to do anything other than listening.
Minimize internal distractions – If you find that your brain is chattering away when you are supposed to be listening, try to refocus your thoughts on the speaker, and keep doing this as often as required. Your ability to do this will improve with practice. It may help to behave as though your life depends on what they have to say, or you could try repeating their words mentally as they say them.
Be sincerely interested – The above two skills will be easier to master if you are genuinely interested in what the speaker has to say. As mentioned already, disinterest is a massive barrier to active listening, and conjuring interest may not be easy.
Have sympathy, feel empathy – These will allow you to take more of an interest. You can empathize by remembering a time when your emotions were on a par with the speaker. If you cannot recall such an occasion, you can sympathize through acceptance – accepting that they are a human being who requires understanding.
Be open-minded – Don’t prejudge the speaker. Even when they begin with a comment that rattles you, wait until they have finished before making any decisions. Some people do not express themselves too well and may not mean exactly what they say. Comments they make subsequently may place a different perspective on their initial words. The key is to be patient and wait. Do not assume or allow preconceptions to wreck communications. The moment people start to disagree, the harder it becomes for both parties to listen actively.
Avoid “me” stories – These happen when a speaker says something that triggers a memory of something similar in your own experience. Then you are just waiting for them to shut up so you can share. This can be disastrous for communication because as soon as the speaker ends their sentence, you jump in and take over. “Me” stories typically begin with “Yeah, that’s just like me …” Phrased in such a way, the listener has justified their interjection by linking their circumstances with the speaker. However, such stories are little more than an opportunity to talk about your favorite subject: yourself. They may also end up taking the conversation so far off-topic that the original impetus is lost. Keep your stories to yourself, unless the speaker specifically asks if you have experienced a similar situation because they genuinely want to know how you handled it.
Don’t be scared of silence – Active listening requires that you take time to absorb what you have heard, analyze it, and then respond. Commenting instantly may give the impression that you have been formulating your response when you should have been listening. You may also be coming in too early. The speaker may only have paused to clarify their thoughts before speaking again and may need that silence to think in. Be assured that if they do want you to speak, they will let you know. They may ask: “What do you think?” or “What would you do?”
Practice emotional intelligence – This is all about being aware of your emotions and opinions. As much as your feelings can aid active listening by creating empathy, they can also hamper communication if they cause you to disagree with the speaker. This can produce negative results if you start an argument, but it can also be detrimental even if you keep your counsel and say nothing. Having negative thoughts about what you are being told will work against your ability to listen actively. You will almost certainly transmit this to the speaker in your body language. You can combat this problem by being more emotionally intelligent. This means accepting that the feelings you have could if you let them, affect your listening abilities and then deciding to keep them under wraps, at least until the speaker has said all they want to say.
Take notes – Although this may make you appear like a psychiatrist, jotting down a few keywords can help. This counters the need to interrupt for fear of forgetting and provides a reference once the speaker has finished so that you know you will be able to address the pertinent issues. Some people may want to speak at length without interruptions, and even the most attentive and active listener will then struggle to recall all the details they wanted to comment on. This tactic has more relevance in formal and business situations. It might be policy to ask whether the speaker minds you writing a little as they speak and to explain the purpose of doing so.
Check your understanding – This is an excellent way to focus your thoughts on listening, demonstrate to the speaker that you really are listening, help clarify the listener’s thoughts and make sure that you genuinely understand. This is a matter of asking clarification questions when appropriate and may involve restating part of what you have heard. You may start with: “So I am right in thinking …” or “Let me just clarify …” or “So are you saying …”
This is part three of a four-part series. Next week we discuss Reflective Listening.
We all could improve our active listening skills. Which skill will you focus on practicing first?