Active listening (sometimes referred to as “reflective listening” or “empathic listening”) is more than hearing (i.e. the ability to receive sound) or plain old listening (i.e. the ability to understand what someone has said).
Crucially, you can tell that good active listening has occured when the person being listened to feels they have been “understood”. For example, extraverts are often labelled as poor listeners, not because they haven’t heard or listened (indeed extraverts have to listen, technically, to know how to link the next thing they want to say into the conversation) but because the other party doesn’t feel they have been 'heard'.
How do you do it?
The ability to make the other party feel heard, listened to and understood hinges on the following three active listening skills:
- Show you are paying attention: your body language should indicate acceptance, receptivity and patience. No folded arms, interruptions of the other person, glances at what is happening somewhere else, or irritability in the voice. Yes to appropriate eye contact. Yes to letting the other person finish what they are saying. Yes to a pause to let what they have said sink in before you reply.
- Show you are not sitting in judgement: demonstrate empathy by really engaging what the other person is saying and feeling. Try to tune in to the other person’s viewpoint. Showing empathy does not mean you agree with what the other person is saying, but you are prepared to listen carefully. Indicate an attitude of respect for what the other person is saying, even if you do not agree with it.
- Show you are attending carefully to what is being said: summarize and reflect what you have heard, ask for clarification or to hear more about some parts of what they have said. Ask open-ended questions, not questions that just require a yes or no answer, to draw people out further. In general, the person you are listening to will not find it helpful to hear your views or your experience - your job is to help them to explore their issue and help them come to their own conclusions. Occasionally they will ask you directly for your view - in which case you can obviously give it - but generally your role is to ask helpful questions and let them work things out for themselves.
These steps sound simple. Practised carefully they will improve your leadership and enhance your reputation as a trustworthy and valued colleague.
An exercise to practise Active listening with two colleagues, and receive feedback on what you did well and what you might improve.