Active Listening

Active Listening is a multi-sensory skill that is most effective when all senses are used.

Beyond using our ears to hear, it is equally important to use our eyes to observe body language and to use our emotions to sense underlying messages. Being sensitized to all the subtleties of messages ensures they are understood the way they are intended.

Before speaking we need to think through what we are going to say, and then relay an understandable message. Equally, we have the responsibility when we listen to receive, process and respond appropriately.

The best way to listen is through active listening. Active listening has four steps. They are:

1. Hear the message

2. Evaluate the message

3. Probe and understand the message

4. Respond to the message

1. Hear the message

Minimize distractions and focus on what a person is communicating. Carefully listening equips us to respond appropriately.

Listen to the words and what they mean. Observe body language and voice. This helps us become fully engaged in the complete message of the conversation.

A person’s body language and voice indicate a wide array of emotions such as whether he or she is happy, sad, relaxed, stressed, tired or energized.

For example, animated body language signals a person who is passionate about a subject, good or bad. Tone, pitch, volume and rate of voice also reflect many emotions. An example of this is a shaky voice rate that may indicate high stress of some sort.

The importance of good eye contact

Good eye contact lets a person know you are listening and interested in the conversation. It’s difficult for a person not to pay attention when you make good eye contact. This is an excellent skill to improve your active listening.

Little children are especially sensitive to eye contact. They frequently say “LOOK AT ME!” to a parent when they are speaking. Children want their parents to be fully engaged. Then they (the parents) will pay attention to the important topic the child wants to discuss.

The same is true of adults, but most people won’t say anything to someone who has poor eye contact. They may be silently upset because they don’t feel listened to, even if they are being listened to. Some people also relate lack of eye contact with non-truthfulness.

If you have trouble with eye contact consider taking the time to improve this skill. Working on eye contact is best accomplished with a trusted friend or family member.

Start slowly with a simple conversation and try to hold eye contact with this person for 3-6 seconds. Extend the time from there. Smiling when you are making eye contact is a definite bonus, and it makes this task easier. Ask the other person to smile as well. This will help to put you at ease.

This may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but soon it will begin to feel pretty good. We all have a need to connect with others. Eye contact and smiling are two simple but effective ways of doing this.

Have your helper give you feedback into how you are improving. When you have built a little confidence, go out and try it when meeting others. When you first meet someone, smile and look that individual straight in the eye for two or three seconds.

Smiles are infectious and create a feeling of comfort and safety. Your active listening will continue to improve.

Note 1: If eye contact is especially uncomfortable for you then a useful technique is to look at the space between a person’s eyebrows, just below the forehead.

A person can’t tell that you aren’t looking him or her in the eyes. If this method helps you fell more comfortable, than why not? Eventually, you may be more at ease with direct eye contact.

2. Evaluate the message

First, when evaluating (attempting to interpret) a message try to be aware of your personal filters and how they are biasing what you are hearing. By understanding that your interpretation of a message may be different than what was intended you can ask clarifying questions. Think through; “what is said, and what is meant.”

Next, there are wide arrays of clear, as well as subtle messages in conversations. Many of these messages are inconsequential. Others are important.

Unspoken communication can be as important, and sometimes more important, than the actual words and phrases used in many conversations. Visual signals and voice inflections are clues of underlying messages (metamessages) that the other person is sending out.

To listen at this level we need to empathize with others. Empathy is an offshoot of Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence is being aware of our own emotions and seeing the links between our thoughts, feelings and reactions. This self-awareness also helps us recognize our own strengths and weaknesses.

Reading the emotions of others using empathy is similar to interpreting our own emotions. It is looking for the connections between reactions and stimulus.

Another important component in message evaluation is intuition. Intuition can be described as a useful insight created by many previous experiences connecting in an entirely new way instantaneously.

When a person’s voice inflections and/or body language aren’t in alignment with his or her words, our empathy and/or intuition sends a signal to our brain. If these voice variations and/or body language are clearly disconnected with the words, then we recognize this on a conscious level.

Other times, the words and visual signals seem to be in alignment, but something else is bothering us at a subconscious level. This is frequently because the body language and other visual cues along with voice changes that are flowing out are so little that we can’t see or hear them, but our Emotional Intelligence and/or intuition can.

Our perception is sensitized to the subtlest of signals. It sends a signal (sometimes called a red flag) to our brain telling us that something isn’t quite right.

Some people have good natural empathy and intuition. They are able to decipher the underlying messages in many conversations by being in tune with the subtle signals that are leaking out from others.

Many of us though, receive the signals in our brains from our feelings, but haven’t taught ourselves how to interpret and use this information effectively. Evaluating the message improves your active listening further.

3a. Probe the message

Ask probing questions about any area(s) of the conversation still unclear to you. One technique to help you probe is known as “Reflective Listening.”

Reflective listening is paraphrasing what another person has said if you are unclear as to the meaning or intention of a comment. Reflective listening is another key in active listening.

By paraphrasing what the person said you send two positive signals. First, you make sure that you understand the meaning of the statement. And second, you signal to a person that you are engaged in the conversation.

It is best to use paraphrasing and not parroting when reflective listening. Parroting is repeating what someone said word for word. This indicates a low level of engagement in the conversation. Paraphrasing indicates processing of the information; and this indicates engagement.

Probing and paraphrasing can be used together to find out important information. For example:

Minimizing disconnects

When you have a disconnect, you can do one of two things. If it isn’t an important conversation then you can choose to ignore it. If the conversation is important then ask probing questions that will help to isolate and resolve the reason for the disconnect. Minimizing helps improve active listening.

Frequently, a comment about someone’s lack of engagement will reengage him or her. This is because a minor shock of realizing that there is disengagement can cause re-engagement.

Sometimes the distraction is discussed and resolved (or at least validated) and this helps a person to get back to the issue being discussed. Other times, a person may be too distracted. Then, it may be better to talk later.

Disconnects can also occur because of obligations. If a person has other obligations he or she may not be as engaged in an assignment as needed.

3b. Understand the message

Understanding comes from active listening to the message, evaluating it, then probing areas unclear to you (or are possible disconnects). Understanding also comes from being sensitive to body language and the emotional state of the person.

4. Respond to the message

After you have a good understanding of the message you will be well equipped to communicate back with your message in the way you intend.

Once you respond, listen to the person’s response. Do his or her comments and/or questions indicate understanding? Is this person’s body language communicating engagement? Or, is there a potential disconnect?

If you sense a disconnect or misunderstanding, ask probing questions to uncover any issues. Then clarify as required.

This concludes a basic overview of active listening. I hope it has been informative!

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