If you engage in communication or negotiation with individuals or groups you generally spend about half your time listening. However, studies show that most people are poor listeners, who don’t retain much of what they hear.
Active listening is a communication technique that allows people to become better listeners through understanding, interpreting and evaluating what they hear. Anyone can become an active listener by practicing some basic techniques, as follows:
- Prepare in advance. Think about the points you want to make, and plan your conversation strategy and the questions in advance. Planning ahead frees your mind for listening.
- Hold your conversation. When you talk you don’t learn anything new. Be more interested in what the other person has to say. Encourage the other person to talk – the more they tell you about their needs or problems the better informed you are to respond or find a solution.
- Concentrate. Shut out all distractions. Close your ears to everything except the person to whom you are speaking. Focus on the key points of the discussion and lock them into your mind using memory triggers so that you can respond appropriately to each point. This is the most important component of active listening that always needs more practice and attention.
- Don’t interrupt. Hear the speaker out. Pause a second or two before you respond. Don’t be afraid of a moment of silence. It shows that you are thinking about what they said.
- Take notes. This will help you remember the important points. However, be selective. Trying to write everything down may cause you to miss important points.
- Ask questions. If you don’t understand something or you require further clarification then ask questions. This will also get the other party involved in the conversation. Also ask about their needs, problems and personal interests. People will open up about things that interest them.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Avoid making assumptions about what the speaker is going to say, even if you have heard similar comments and complaints before. Treat every person as a unique individual.
- Visualise the person. If speaking to someone on the phone, try to picture the person. It’s easier to become interested in people if you can relate their words to a face.
- Use conversation cues. An occasional “Yes”, “I see” or “I understand” shows that you are paying attention and encourages people to keep talking.
- Listen between the lines. You can learn a great deal about the people and the central issue by the way they say things or the body language they display. Pay attention to emotions, not just words. Fear, frustration and enthusiasm can be easily detected in a person’s tone of voice, facial expression or body language.
- Practice, practice, practice. Rehearse with family, friends and colleagues. Use everyday conversation as a tool for improving your skills.
The ability to listen actively will improve your communication skills through:
- a better understanding of the central topic and issues,
- reduced conflict,
- improved concentration and memory retention;
thereby fostering better collaboration, and achieving desired outcomes.
Dr John Kapeleris