Active listening is one of the most powerful communication tools available to us. It can help build relationships, deepen understanding, and promote collaboration among all parties involved. When used properly, active listening increases empathy and trust between individuals, enabling them to better collaborate on tasks and projects. Listening actively also helps people to better express themselves and understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others.
Unfortunately – most of us are not actually very good at this important skill!
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey
The good news is, with practice and dedication, we can all learn how to become better active listeners.
Active listening is not a passive process – it requires active engagement with the speaker in order to really understand what they’re trying to communicate. It involves paying attention, expressing understanding and clarifying points when needed; all while keeping an open mind and allowing the speaker to feel valued.
Active listening is a complex skill – in which the listener suspends their own frame of reference – and fully attends to the speaker’s. The listener avoids engaging in immediate judgment – prejudice, assumptions, rebuttal or criticism. They are open not only to the spoken word – but also to body language and emotional subtext – so your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you accurately perceive and understand these messages (so developing your emotional intelligence skills in the area of – perceiving emotions, is an important related skill).
Active listeners don’t try to evaluate or solve problems in the moment – but simply restate to the speaker what they believe they are saying – so as to confirm the mutual understanding of both parties.
This kind of listening is difficult to master – in part because it is at odds with today’s frenetically multitasking – information-overloaded, distraction-driven world, but perhaps more importantly because it runs counter to the way our brains have evolved to function.
Our listening brain is wired to do exactly what active listening discourages, our brain is wired to evaluate input, predict outcomes, make judgments and perform triage of all the incoming data – all on a moment-to-moment basis. This mode of functioning, according to cognitive neuroscience, evolved as the brain’s strategy to use its finite neural capacity efficiently. According to neuroscientists, rather than just waiting to be activated by sensations – the human brain is constantly generating predictions that help to interpret the sensory environment in the most efficient manner. You see, there are many statistical regularities in our environment – the sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening – and the brain uses them to short-cut processing in similar future situations.
The primary principle is that the brain extracts coarse – gist information rapidly – and uses it to generate predictions that help interpret that input. It continuously employs memories of past experiences and existing knowledge, to interpret new sensory information, and predict the immediately relevant future.
This means that listening is largely a top-down, strategic cognitive process and advances in neuroimaging techniques – allow us to now see exactly what happens in our brain when we listen.
As we take in the stimuli of the speaker’s words the prefrontal cortex, which enables organizing and prioritizing, lights up with activity as we continually vet the incoming information against what we know – our past experiences – and our theoretical construct of the future.
This capacity to use what we already know – to outweigh some of what the incoming signals seem to be saying – can be hugely beneficial when the sensory data is noisy, ambiguous, or incomplete – which, let’s face it is much of our daily life – but viewed from this perspective, shows the challenge of active listening, and why so few of us do it well (or often enough!).
Genuinely active listening requires a wilful override of our brain’s preferred mode of operation. It requires that listeners quell the brain’s biological need for efficiency, prediction, and planning, and employ a purely bottom-up process to become truly open to the input of others, and helps us to understand why this can be such a difficult skill to master and why you should be gentle on yourself if you’ve realised that you only thought you were a really good listener!
7 Tips to Improve your Active Listening Skills
Tip one: Paraphrase Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase what they said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention.
Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is_______“, “It sounds like_____“ or “If I understand you right_____”
Tip two: Ask questions When appropriate, and in addition to any specific questions you might have, ask open-ended questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Eg “I understand you aren’t happy with [x]. What changes can we make to it?
If you don’t understand something, wait for the other person to finish before you ask for clarification. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means. Instead, ask questions to clarify their meaning, such as, “When you say _____, do you mean_____?
Tip three: Express empathy If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why they feel that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself if you were in that position. You might respond, “I can sense that you’re feeling frustrated “or “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”
Tip four: Use and watch for engaged body language If you are having the conversation face to face (not essential but highly recommended for this activity, and virtual face-to-face connection is fine), show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment or checking your phone.
Be mindful of your facial expressions. Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust. Watch the other person’s body language to try and identify nonverbal messages and think about what their non-verbal messages might be a sign of in the context of the words they’re using (eg are they blushing and thus potentially embarrassed or getting angry, are they fidgeting and potentially nervous).
Tip five: Avoid judgment Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counterarguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.
Tip six: Avoid giving advice Problem-solving is likely to be much more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard.
Moving too quickly into advice-giving or solution-finding mode can be counterproductive and cause frustration for the other person who might not yet feel sufficiently heard.
Tip seven: Take turns After the other person has had a chance to speak and you have engaged in the active listening steps above, ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I feel” statements eg “I feel overwhelmed when you don’t help out around the house“.
It may also be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective (eg “l know you’ve been very busy lately and don’t mean to leave me hanging, how can we resolve this situation…”).
Developing this skill isn’t easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding in both professional and personal contexts.
Takeaway Tip: Learn to listen by having only one objective: comprehension.
Listen with the sole purpose of trying to understand what the person is trying to convey to you. Don’t listen to critique, to object, to convince, just listen solely to understand the complete message. It can be difficult not to formulate a response while the other person is talking because we typically think much faster than other people can speak, so our brains are often “whirring away” while they are talking. You need to concentrate hard to stay focused on the person who’s speaking, and this can take a lot of effort. Sometimes simply concluding conversations in which information is exchanged with a summary can help.
In conversations that result in agreements about future activities, summarising can really help ensure accurate follow-through too!