Understand and be understood with Active Listening Skills.
What is an effective active listening skill and how do I improve it?
Let’s begin this essay with one simple guideline. Stop after each sentence and reflect on it for a brief moment. If it doesn’t “sink in”, read it again. This is the first step in forming the frame of mind for active listening. Yeah, it’s in writing, but we should all strive to fully understand each other, regardless of the medium.
I once had a job where active listening was one of the “five basic skills”. I learned a lot about others and myself during this job. We have all had the experience of saying something to someone and feeling like we were talking to a wall. At some time or another, each of us has also been the wall spoken to.
There are really two different approaches to active listening. For clarity, let’s refer to them as ACTIVE active listening and PASSIVE active listening. I will briefly define ACTIVE active listening, which is useful in the most severe cases and then move on to PASSIVE active listening, where we will spend most of our time.
ACTIVE active listening is used by professionals in conflict resolution and therapy situations, where getting to the root of communication based problems is the goal. This is a technique where one person makes a statement and the listener repeats the statement in his/her own words to demonstrate understanding of the original statement. If the listener’s summary of the original statement is accurate, active listening has been achieved. If not, then the first speaker has the opportunity to clarify his/her intent. Note that listener agreement to the statement is not the goal, but understanding of the statement is.
What often necessitates the need for this type of exercise is an advanced case of the communication disorders that most of us suffer to some degree. Try to evaluate yourself over the next few days. Do you often have trouble remembering the name of someone you just spoke with? This may be an indicator of poor listening skill. When communicating with someone, is your attention often diverted from what they are saying because you are busy formulating your next response? How can you form a response to that which you have not yet fully heard? This is probably the biggest hurdle to cross in active listening. We live in a rather competitive society, where things are often perceived as “won” or “lost” A conversation should not become a competition. Debates are an exception, but very few of our verbal exchanges should fall under this classification. Real communication requires thought. We can easily identify competitive responders. They are spurting their point of view before the echo of your last syllable has dissipated. My dad always says to “put your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion”. When someone finishes a comment, pause for a moment. Really digest what it is they are saying. Forget about rapidly parrying with your own remark. If you have a valid point to make, it will still be valid in a few seconds, won’t it? This is the foundation for PASSIVE active listening.
Some Native Americans used the tradition of the Talking Stick. The Talking Stick was used in council to ensure that everyone was heard and had the chance to fully express themselves. It was passed from speaker to speaker. No one else interrupted the person with the Talking Stick. Everyone listened thoughtfully. I don’t recommend that you approach your boss Monday morning with the push broom handle, but try to embody the spirit of the Talking Stick.
My wife and I have had to incorporate active listening in our relationship. I might ask, “Would you like to go to see a movie?” and she might reply, “Not now.” If I am not actively listening, I might respond with “Why not?” The fact of the matter is that she did not say she didn’t want to see a movie. She said she did not want to see a movie NOW. A more appropriate response from me might be, “When would you be interested in seeing a movie?” We often fail to hear what exactly is said and our minds jump to the worst possible conclusion, wreaking havoc to our well-intended attempts at interrelation.
Fortunately, we are adaptable creatures and the ability to improve ourselves lies within our grasp. One technique for improving active listening is through the use of a journal. Get yourself a small notebook, one that fits easily into your pocket. After a verbal exchange, pull it out and make a few notes. Who were you speaking with? Do you remember their name? If not, you can work on this. Try to use someone’s name shortly after being told the name. Don’t give the information time to be lost. Even a comparative statement can help lodge a name in your mind (“Oh, I have an uncle named Fred” or “Cindy–Is that spelled with an I or a Y?”) What did you discuss? Do you remember not only your own points, but also those of the other speaker? How did you feel about the conversation? Did it seem to flow or was it a chore? Did you find yourself rushing to respond or pausing to reflect? How about the other speaker? After a few days of this, you may begin to spot a pattern in you communication and know where to focus your efforts.
When you feel fairly secure in your basic active listening skills, move on to the more advanced steps. Begin asking people open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are those requiring a short or one-word answer. (“Are you ready?” or “Where is the Cheese Whiz?”) Open-ended questions require more detailed responses and more detailed listening skills. (“How do they get the cheese into the can?” or “When you are ready, how will I know?”) Challenge yourself with detailed technical questions and test yourself for information retention. Ask things outside your zone of knowledge, like “What did you find when you replaced my brake pads?” Listen carefully and ask appropriate questions if you do not understand. Build your skills through regular usage.
Finally, when you feel you have mastered the techniques, take the ultimate test. Find someone with whom you disagree on an important issue. Ask them open-ended questions and DO NOT DEBATE. You still don’t have to agree with them. The goal is to understand them. If you don’t express your counter position this one time, so what? This is a personal growth exercise. You don’t need to feel victorious. For example:
YOU “So, I see by your T-shirt you support fascism?”
THEM “That’s right.”
YOU “Can you tell me about fascism? I have never had the chance to study it.”
THEM “Well, it’s a political philosophy that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
YOU “And what are the benefits of fascism, in your opinion?”
In this example, it would be very tempting for most of us to enter debate mode, barely hearing the disagreeable things being said to us. The point is that most people deserve the right to be heard accurately, even if we disagree. Then, if you choose to dispute what you hear, your argument will be based on what was said to you and not on what you thought was said to you. Active listening is simply taking the time to hear and understand. You will find yourself better informed and better prepared to respond whenever you have exercised your active listening skills.