The Art of Active Listening
Speaking and listening are soft skills that most of us take for granted and believe ourselves to be fluent in. However, often we may not be fully present in a conversation and as a result, important information can be ignored or simply forgotten. Research varies greatly in terms of how much of what we hear we actually retain, but it is far from one hundred percent, indicating that we may not be as skilled in this area as we might assume.
Active listening is a concept which is alien to many. Often, when people are speaking to us, our minds wander, thinking about what we are going to say next and focusing on the next gap in the conversation so that we can interject with our own pearls of wisdom. This can result in valuable information slipping through the cracks. Not just what the person is saying, but also what they are not saying.
The practice of active listening is when one focuses completely on the person speaking to them – not just their words, but their body language, facial expressions and tone. Themes can emerge and emotions become more noticeable, allowing the listener to understand what the person is really trying to say and also, what they are not saying. By focusing all of ones attention on the speaker, it allows for a far richer understanding of the message that they are trying to convey. That is not to say that interruptions should not be made, its fine to interrupt, if clarification is necessary, or simply to paraphrase what is being said, if there is an appropriate pause in the conversation, but not simply to interject with your own point or counter argument.
Top tips for active listening include:
- Focus on the person who is speaking, try to tune out any external stimuli.
- Maintain appropriate eye contact with the speaker; nodding or making some other signal which shows you are still fully engaged will encourage them to continue, knowing that they have your undivided attention
- Do not try and multitask – put down your phone, or any other work you may be absentmindedly be flicking through, not only is it disrespectful to the person to whom you are speaking, it does not allow you to fully process what they are saying and can mean you miss out on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions or even crucial gaps in the information you are being presented with.
- Ask questions in an appropriate way, try not to interrupt unnecessarily, but if something is not clear, do attempt to clarify, simply saying, “so what I’m hearing is…”
- If you disagree with what the person is saying, wait until they have finished before voicing your objections, respectfully listen to the point that they are trying to make first
Practicing this skill takes time and effort, but the benefits are undoubtedly worth the investment and can include improved workplace relations, a more complete understanding of your client’s needs, and a greater understanding of what is happening in your team and the wider organisation as a whole.