Communication: Active Listening

Are you a good Listener?
In all probability you will consider yourself a good listener. Most of us do.
With the amount of talking/oral communication we are exposed to we should be. But the truth is that we ‘hear’ but are not really ‘listening’. And even when we do listen, it’s quite often to respond to what is being said.
I’m sure you have experienced instances when you have misunderstood or misinterpreted what you heard.
How do we ensure we hear exactly what is being said? We understand the real message not just the words.

First let’s consider what is Good listening:

It’s not about being silent. Good listening is not about keeping quiet and letting the other speak. But about actually hearing what he/she is saying and asking questions that lead the person to open up and speak with more confidence. It makes the discussion more constructive.
Build the other person’s self-esteem. Focus on the person who is speaking. Just sitting quietly with a vacant look is not active listening. Active listening means paying full attention to the person speaking and to what he or she is saying. Trying to understand the persons point of view and keeping your mind open to the points mentioned.
Make it a conversation. Many a times you may not agree with the person but give a patient hearing with an open mind and raise your points in a non-threatening manner. Be constructive and suggest rather than criticise. The intent is not to argue or win a point but to come to a consensus or find common ground and keep the line of communication open. Unlike a poor listener who tends to be competitive be the person others will come to.
Give constructive feedback. Research suggests that people are open to suggestions from people they consider to be good listeners. A reason could be that a good listener does not rubbish ideas but listens well before raising any points. They make suggestions in a way that are open and friendly. Use feedback to assist not accuse the person and his or her views.

Listening has different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires complete rapt attention but all good listeners do the following:

• Turn off your mobile phone. This is the easy part! Try not to be distracted in any other way especially, in your mind. Focus on the person and what is being said. It’s a way of showing you respect the person and her opinion.
• Use attentive body language. The way you sit, nod your head or make eye contact is another indication of your attentiveness. It doesn’t mean that you turn towards the person and randomly nod at the person. You must turn towards the person, sit slightly forward with a relaxed, easy posture indicating you are in no hurry also that you are ready for the conversation. Acknowledging what the person is saying with a smile or a nod as appropriate, helps to keep the connection. Making eye contact is also a good sign of your genuine interest in what the person has to say.
• Use verbal cues. Saying “um-hmmm,” “sure,” “ah,” and “yes” etc is a way of showing that you are following the conversation. These cues are not to be arbitrarily interspersed.
• Offer encouragement. Smile and chat to relax the person and the situation. Make the atmosphere conducive to have a friendly open conversation.
• Listen to the tone & body language. Pay attention to the tone of voice and observe the posture of the person. This will help you gauge the mood, the feelings and help you read between the lines. Listen with your ears and your eyes!
• Ask questions to clarify or probe for more details or maybe even make suggestions. When you do this, you make it obvious that you are listening and want to know more. It’s a way to get more information and to understand the persons point of view. It is a way to show that he/she matters and that you care.
• Show empathy & be honest. A good listener doesn’t hijack a conversation or bulldoze the speaker. Listening attentively without bias and attempting to understand the emotion of the speaker gets him/her to respond with openness to your suggestions. Help him/her to relook and rethink his/her assumptions. Be open and honest about your concerns in a ‘open-to-discussion’ manner.
• Paraphrase what the other person has said. Restating what you’ve heard in your words clarifies all aspects of the points discussed. It not only shows that you have been listening well but gives an opportunity to the speaker to correct herself or add anything she may have missed out. It makes the conversation more complete and satisfying.

Active listening is not just about keeping quiet and hearing what another person has to say but doing so with a genuine desire to listen and understand. Active listening is a model for good communication. It is an important attribute of a good team player and a good leader. Do remember that listening is not just about gathering information and sharing ideas, but also gaining perspective and understanding. It takes practice to develop active listening skills, and it’s a skill that needs to be reinforced. The pointers given above will assist in the learning of this extremely important skill.
Communication after all is not merely a trading of words, but developing an understanding of others ideas and perspectives.

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