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The Techniques and Benefits of Active Listening

John is a relationship expert in the private and public sphere.

Talking on phone

Talking on phone

Active Listening

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 to 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?

Talking on phone

Talking on phone

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.

Practice at the park.

Practice at the park.

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 keywords 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