Active listening is listening purposefully, with your focus on understanding what the speaker is trying to communicate.
We're rarely trained for this technique. Even those who know how to listen actively generally don't do so all the time. It takes effort to listen actively. It's easy to fall back into passive mode -- hearing the words but not really striving to understand the meaning the speaker is trying to get across.
Our Normal Mode of Listening
Before we discuss how to truly listen, it might be helpful to examine our default tendencies.
It's unfortunate, but in today's busy society, we rarely give our full attention to any single activity. We've become obsessed with the practice of multi-tasking. We're so determined to be productive that we try to listen and do other tasks at the same time, with the result that we don't do any of it well.
Even when we aren't trying to multi-task, we're often distracted from listening by the events going on around us. We fail to maintain eye contact, demonstrating that we're shifting our attention to other people and things. In short, we're not fully engaged in the conversation.
We also tend to focus our attention on formulating a response to what's being said instead of concentrating on the words the speaker is saying. Often, we don't even allow a person to finish explaining their thoughts before we interrupt with our own opinions and ideas. We might even finish their sentences for them. When we engage in these behaviors, we aren't listening so much as gearing up to demonstrate what we think or know about the subject at hand.
While both face-to-face and telephone conversations can be challenging, talking on the phone provides more opportunity (and thus more temptation) to engage in multi-tasking. So it requires a greater commitment to listen actively. How many times have you been talking to someone on the phone and heard the clicking of a keyboard, or realized that the other person got distracted and wasn't paying attention to what you said? How did that make you feel, knowing the other person considered something else more important than what you were saying?
Benefits of Active Listening
So what's the payoff when we invest the extra effort to listen well? Simply put, active listening yields both better understanding and better relationships.
On the most basic level, being more engaged means that you're truly communicating. When both parties to a conversation practice active listening, then each person will hear and understand the other person's position. You cannot have good communication when one or both parties aren't giving their full attention to the words being said and the meaning behind them.
Good communication is also the basis for good relationships. When you truly listen, you demonstrate respect for the other person. This simple act builds trust and invites greater intimacy.
Listening attentively gets people to open up; they feel like they are being heard and understood, and the undivided attention makes them feel valued and respected. Once people feel like someone is really listening to them, they're more willing to share their true feelings.
Active listening can also help diffuse conflicts and disagreements. When we calmly and respectfully discuss areas where we disagree, we can fully understand the other person's point of view. While we might not always agree with their opinions, at least we understand their reasoning. Just knowing what a person is really thinking and where they are coming from helps us to better understand them and can relieve feelings of anger or resentment.
Techniques for Active Listening
So how can we practice active listening? Here are some tips to be fully engaged in your conversations.
- When you're listening to someone, either in a one-on-one conversation or as a member of a group, focus your attention fully on the subject the speaker is discussing. If you notice your mind wandering, gently tell yourself "not now" or "I'll think about that later" and return your attention to the speaker. If possible, you might jot down one or two key words on paper so you can return your attention to the conversation without worrying that you'll forget your thought.
- Don't be tempted by distractions; keep your attention focused on the speaker and what they are saying. Often, our attention diverts to activities around us: someone walking by, a nearby conversation, or some other activity. It's easy to be distracted, but once you become aware of this tendency, it gets easier to recognize when your attention starts to wander and to draw your focus back to your conversation. Ignoring distractions may seem difficult, but you can get better at it with practice. If you know that you're easily distracted, you can also take steps to minimize temptation: choosing a time and place to converse that isn't as busy, selecting seats away from windows and main aisles, and if possible, sitting with your back to any potential distractions.
- Focus on the speaker, not yourself. Don't think ahead to your response. Maintain regular eye contact. You don't want to stare into the other person's eyes every minute, but be sure to frequently look at their eyes and face.
- Be involved. Face the speaker directly and use your body language to indicate that you're listening. You might lean forward, nod your head, smile, or make inviting, open-palm gestures to encourage continued conversation.
- Always give the speaker time to finish their sentence before you respond. Form the habit of silently counting to three before you voice your own thoughts.
- When you do speak, express appreciation for their point of view. It doesn't mean you agree with them, just that you value understanding their perspective.
- Finally, learn to ask questions in a non-threatening, non-judgmental manner. If you ask questions with a hostile or derisive tone, the other person will usually become defensive and may even become angry. Once emotions take over, it's difficult to exchange ideas in a respectful manner and understanding becomes almost impossible.
While these techniques take effort, they become more natural with practice -- and the benefits are worth it.
If you want to improve your relationships at home, at work and in your social networks, learn to listen actively. It will improve all aspects of your life.
© 2008 John Chancellor
John Chancellor (author) from Tennessee on August 08, 2009:
Beth ... Your children probably do not realize what a great service you are doing for them. Getting them in the habit of actively listening is one of the best habits you can help them develop. Keep up the good work and gently try to spread the word to other parents.
Thanks for your comments.
Beth100 from Canada on August 07, 2009:
The one thing I have little tolerance for is people who do not give their full attention when being spoken to or with. As a result, my children have been taught from an early age to stop what it is they are doing, turn to the person and acknowledge that they have heard and understand what was spoken. Communication breakdown occurs, often, from the lack of attention given when in a conversation. Thanks John for the great points and suggestions!
John Chancellor (author) from Tennessee on August 07, 2009:
Good points. Another thing you can do is not look around and get distracted by other things around you. Often on the telephone, we get distracted by things going on around us and then we are not actively listening.
Nishant Bhat on August 07, 2009:
I guess a way for active telephone conversation can be -- take a pen and paper and pen down a 'web' type of topics both of u are communicating about.. it can serve 2 ways, firstly you concentrate on finding the headline of each talk n secondly if u wish u can keep those notes as memory!
John Chancellor (author) from Tennessee on April 04, 2008:
I am glad you found it useful. It is something we all need to work on. I think there are way too many distractions that are battling for our attention.
Sapristi! on April 04, 2008:
It is so rare to find someone who truly listens. So often you will notice that far-away look in the other person's eyes after only a few moments of talking to them. The clicking on the keyboard ove rthe phone is especially disappointing! Thank you, John, for reminding us to truly be there for the people who need us. I will keep this hub in mind the next time someone wants to explain something to me.
John Chancellor (author) from Tennessee on March 30, 2008:
Thanks for your comments.
I suspect that it is more have never learned than have lost. It is something we all must work on. It is much too easy to get distracted or worse yet - self-centered where we worry more about what we are going to say than listening to what someone else is saying.
Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on March 30, 2008:
John, this is such a great Hub and it is unfortunate that people seem to have lost the "art" of active listening. You are so correct that it shows honor and respect to give someone your full attention when they are speaking. I'd like to experience more of that myself - and will endeavor to do better as a listener! Cheers!