Active listening means to focus on the speaker with all your senses. Hearing is a physical ability whereas listening is a skill that can be developed with practice. Doing so requires concentration and can be challenging to master because life is full of distractions. This article sets out ten practical steps that you can take which will help you improve the quality of your listening.
Why actively listen? If you listen thoroughly to people, then you may find they listen fully to you. Properly attending to someone is vital if you want to ask useful and appropriate questions. Active listening enables you to assess if you have understood correctly and seek clarification. Taking time to absorb information and ideas by concentrating on how what is said also improves the quality of your response.
The experience of being heard at this deep level help people feel appreciated and valued which in turn boosts self-esteem. Being known as someone who properly attends to a conversation will also improve your ability to create and maintain good relationships. All good reasons for making the effort to hone your listening skills. Try these ideas and notice the difference they can make to the quality of your listening:
1. Embrace silence
Just listen. When somebody else is talking, focus on hearing their words. Avoid jumping in with your thoughts. You may fall prey to mindreading and finish their sentences for them. Stop and just listen. It shows respect and will encourage the speaker to share their thoughts fully. Then you can ask questions and clarify your understanding. Use WAIT as a reminder to not speak (Why am I talking? What am I thinking?).
2. Relax your body, open your mind
Take some deep breaths and relax. Enjoy the sensation of listening. Be curious about what is said and notice how it lands with you. Put other thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on is being communicated. Take time to be interested in the other person and their viewpoint. It will make all the difference to the quality of the conversation.
3. Put the speaker at ease
Show that the speaker that you welcome their thoughts. Inspire confidence to share what is on their mind by being respectful of their needs and concerns. You might nod, smile or use other gestures or words to encourage them to continue. Maintain eye contact with a soft gaze. Do not stare or roll your eyes or frown while they are talking. Have a curious mind. Show how you are making the effort to listen and understand what you have heard.
4. Be respectful
Do not doodle, scroll your phone, play with your glasses or similar. Show respect. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Put your phone on silent or divert calls. If the conversation is taking place via a video call, close Outlook and any other apps to avoid unnecessary interruptions. You will find that the conversation goes so much better when both parties experience focused attention.
5. Listen to understand
Look at issues from their perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. Being non-judgmental will help you absorb what is said, and objectively consider the consequences. If you disagree with something, then make a note and come back to the point when it is your turn to speak. Sometimes a conversation can get derailed early on because of a misunderstanding of context, or partial understanding. Check your knowledge by playing back what you believe to be the issues.
6. Offer patience
Give the speaker time to think and complete their communication. It is tempting to jump in when there is a pause. Wait. Breathe into the moment. Let the speaker continue until they are ready for you to respond. Depending on the topic and circumstances you might encourage more profound thinking by asking ‘what else would you like to add?’ when the person has finished talking. Allow them time to formulate their ideas fully, and you will get the benefit of their best thinking. It may only take a few moments or minutes but can make all the difference to their self-esteem and the quality of their output.
7. Be impartial
Everybody has a different way of speaking. Some people are, for example, more nervous or shy than others, some have regional accents or make extravagant arm movements. Other people like to pace while talking, and others want to sit still. Try focusing on what is being conveyed rather than critique the mode of delivery.
8. Notice speed, volume and tone
People naturally use speed, volume and tone to add emphasis or meaning to their words. Experienced speakers know that varying their speed, volume and tone will draw their audience in and keep their interest. Listen for pitch and intonation when someone speaks to you. It will help you develop rapport as the effort means you will carefully attend their words.
8. Pay attention
Take note of how the person speaking moves their body and how their facial expression changes. When you listen at this level, you are wholly absorbed not only by their words but also their gestures. Simply notice. For example, is the speaker relaxed, anxious, animated or still? How do their words sit alongside their body language? Do not jump to conclusions about what you see and hear. Ask questions to ensure that your understanding is correct or if there are further thoughts and ideas to be added.
10. Reflect and summarise
During the conversation, use the natural breaks in a speech to reflect what you hear. For example, paraphrasing key points. This technique ensures that you and the speaker are in accord. It does not mean that you agree with everything said. Only that you are demonstrating that you are keenly listening to their viewpoint. The act of reflecting also helps you to remember the crucial points and makes summing up at the end of the conversation more natural.