Active listening can improve communication, build stronger relationships and enhance your understanding of the world around you. In this article, we explore the benefits of active listening and provide practical tips for incorporating it into your daily interactions. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a budding leader, being a better listener will help you truly understand and connect with others.
Do you consider yourself a good listener? How about an active listener? The term “active listening” was coined in 1957 by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson. Although listening is generally considered a passive exercise, active listening is intentional. It requires you to listen attentively, fully understand what the other person is saying, respond appropriately and absorb the information.
The goal of active listening is to improve communication. It has been used in a wide variety of situations, including advocacy, coaching, counselling, tutoring and more. Of course, it can also be used in casual settings or in conversations with friends and family.
In a work setting, being an active listener can be highly beneficial. Just imagine a doctor-patient consultation, a sales representative attending to a customer, or a team meeting at corporate organisations on any given day. Effective communication is a must in all of these settings and in the modern workplace.
Benefits of active listening
Active listening helps in gaining a deeper understanding of the speaker’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives. It goes beyond just hearing words; it seeks the meaning behind the message. It also involves grasping the underlying emotions and context. Ultimately, it helps you get to the bottom of what the other person is trying to get across.
Active listening resolves conflict
Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable, especially in the high-pressure environment of the workplace. People misunderstand one another and have different goals and interests. Active listening is crucial in such circumstances because it helps us to see beyond our own positions, biases and wants. Active listening is also the key to fruitful negotiations when we truly listen and then analyse how we can each arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.
Enhances learning and gaining knowledge
Whether in a classroom, conference hall or meeting room, an active listener is fully present and engaged in the information being shared. Active listening helps you to assimilate information and broaden your understanding, even of topics that are different or unfamiliar to you. This is especially helpful when you or your organisation is on the cusp of change, such as when you’re preparing to step into a new role or when your organisation is adopting different strategies.
Builds connections and strengthens relationships
When you show genuine interest and attention, it helps you build connections and strengthen your relationships, whether it’s with your spouse, teammates or board members. It makes the other party feel heard and valued. In a team or department, it helps build goodwill and rapport. Research has shown that when a person perceives that he or she is being actively listened to, it arouses positive feelings in the individual and a more improved impression of that experience.
Active listening identifies and anticipates problems
When you pay close attention through active listening, you may be able to spot potential problems and take steps to mitigate them. Listening carefully helps you to see the big picture, connect the dots and understand the situation in its entirety. With that knowledge, you can evaluate the possibilities and anticipate where complications may emerge.
Active listening makes you a better leader
Being an effective leader means, among other things, having top-notch interpersonal skills. And listening well is a big part of it. A leader who is an active listener seeks to truly understand the needs and concerns of their team members. Listening actively helps you be more aware of what’s happening around you and among your teams. You will be more cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of team members, and know how to give better feedback. Also, employees appreciate having their ideas and suggestions heard.
Limits errors and prevents you from missing important information
Taking the time to listen carefully reduces the chances of missing important information, thereby limiting errors or slip-ups. When you apply active listening, you will tend to retain information better. And since you will have understood the message in its entirety, you will also remember specific details that are of particular significance. Such skills are especially useful if you are receiving training or have to convey the information to others.
Active listening tips and techniques
As we mentioned at the beginning, active listening is not a passive exercise; it requires intention and focus. Like other skills, it is something you can hone and get better with practice. So let’s look at some techniques you can apply to build your active listening muscles.
Give your full attention
To be fully engaged in what someone is saying, there is no doubt that you have to give your full attention. Eliminate distractions, such as by putting away your phone or picking a time and space where you will not be disturbed. Internally, resist the urge to let your mind wander. Refrain from thinking about counterarguments or what you would have done instead. Be focused on the moment and what is being said.
Show that you’re listening
Use appropriate body language to show that you’re listening attentively. One of the most important is to make and maintain eye contact. Nod occasionally to offer encouragement and understanding. Smiling, when appropriate, can indicate support and diffuse tension (read our article [link] on the benefits of smiling in the workplace). You can use phrases like “I see” or “I understand” to acknowledge the person speaking. Avoid looking at other people, objects, or your phone. Try not to fidget too.
Paraphrase or summarize
Paraphrasing and summarizing are useful actions to gain a better understanding. Repeat the key points in your own words to make sure your takeaways are accurate. You can use the following phrases as examples: “So what you’re saying is…”, “Just to be clear,…” Or you can summarize what was said and ask, “Did I get that right?”
Ask open-ended questions
Always seek additional information if something is unclear. Asking open-ended questions (which cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”) encourages the speaker to elaborate. You can also ask more probing questions that can lead to more in-depth discussions. While the goal in active listening is to gain comprehension, the right questions can prompt different ideas, which can present more options.
It can be difficult to refrain from interjecting, especially if you disagree with something the speaker had said. However, do resist the urge to jump in with your own thoughts or solutions and allow the speaker to finish. You can take notes that you can come back to when it’s your turn to speak. But remember that the goal is to listen attentively and understand, not to provide all the answers or show your disagreement.
Come to the conversation with an open mind. We all have different views and perspectives, but active listening requires you to avoid forming opinions prematurely, suspend judgment and withhold criticism. Be receptive to other possibilities, ideas and worldviews. Also, control your emotional responses, try not to offer unsolicited advice and dictate answers.
Take note of non-verbal cues
Active listening goes beyond hearing words. Ideally, you want to understand the emotions and context behind the message. One of the ways to do that is to watch for unspoken cues and body language. Does the speaker look relaxed, tense, uncertain? Is he or she constantly watching the clock or fidgeting? Are their arms crossed, which may signal defensiveness? At the same time, you will want to mind your own non-verbal cues. Make sure you maintain an open and approachable posture. Your facial expression should be calm, thoughtful or attentive. Display interest, empathy or compassion to help put the speaker at ease.
Active listening at your workplace
Real understanding that comes from intentional, active listening offers many benefits. In the workplace, active listening (which in itself is a component of effective communication) is one way to create a positive work environment, which brings about better collaboration and teamwork. Additionally, misunderstandings can be avoided and mistakes reduced. All these ultimately lead to improved productivity.
Beyond the workplace, active listening is applicable to any human interaction. It’s been shown that “high-quality listening” is impactful even in difficult conversations and is “effective in reducing defensiveness, bridging divides and motivating change” (Study).
Make use of the active listening techniques we have shared and start upgrading your active listening skills. If you’d like guidance, we are happy to help. As qualified coaches and psychologists, we can help you overcome barriers to active listening, relate to others better and develop to your full potential. Get in touch with us today.
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