Listening is vital to communication at all levels. However, while we spend many years in school learning to read, write and speak, we spend almost no time learning to listen. Even though most experts agree that listening is a skill, it seems we do not feel it is a skill we need to develop in ourselves and others.
One way of improving listening skills is the technique of ‘active listening.’ The influential American Psychologist Carl Rogers is the source of the ideas of active listening.
The process of active listening can be explained in four simple steps.
- Listen for the total meaning. Any message has two components, the content of the message and the underlying feelings. We need to listen for both meaning and feeling if we want to listen effectively.
- Respond to the feelings. Sometimes the feelings underlying a message are more important that the content. The active listener must listen carefully to try to analyse the ‘total’ meaning of what the speaker is saying. This is listening with empathy.
- Note all cues. Not all communication is verbal and for active listening we need to look for hesitations, pauses, inflection, tone, volume, facial expression, body posture, hand & eye movements and breathing. It is the total package of behaviour that helps the person convey their message, and we need to be alert to all of these.
- Reflect back what you think the speaker means. As active listening is harder than it at first appears, the authors suggest we test that we have understood the speaker correctly. We do this by reflecting (repeating back) in our own words what we think the speaker means by their words and behaviour. Contrary to popular misconceptions, reflection is not a verbatim repetition of the speaker’s words, but a reflecting on what you think the person is saying and feeling.
Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It requires practice and personal reflection. It also requires a change in the attitude of the listener, who must have a sincere interest in the speaker and what they are trying to communicate. We must be open to a person’s point of view (POV) and be genuine in our concern for them as a human being.
Buon, T. (2015). Communication Genius: 40 Insights from the Science of Communication. London: ISBN: 9781473605404
Rogers, C.R and Farson, R. E (1987). Active Listening . In Newman, R. G. Danziger, M. A. and Cohen, M. (eds.), Communication in Business Today. Washington, D.C.: Heath and Company, 589-598.