- Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.
Understanding active listening
In defining active listening, it is useful to describe the difference between listening and hearing.
Listening means receiving sounds with deliberate intention and is an active skill that improves through conscious effort and practice. Hearing, on the other hand, is a passive act involving the process and function of perceiving sound.
The individual who hears without listening has little interest in what another person has to say. They may simply be bored of the conversation or be actively forming a counterargument for when it is their turn to speak.
Active listening goes hand in hand with good communication. Expressing thoughts, feelings, and opinions effectively can only be achieved by truly listening to the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the speaker.
Furthermore, a speaker who has the listener’s undivided attention is more likely to feel heard, understood, and accepted. For this reason, active listening builds trust and fosters a deep connection between individuals.
Non-verbal active listening techniques
Following is a generic list of non-verbal techniques that may or may not be representative of active listening:
- Smiling combined with nodding of the head – this shows the speaker the listener is paying attention to what is being said. It is also confirmation the listener understands and is happy about the messages conveyed.
- Eye contact – too much eye contact comes across as disingenuous, while too little shows a lack of interest. Listeners should always strive for somewhere in between, matching their level of eye contact to the confidence of the speaker. Eye contact can be combined with other non-verbal signals for encouragement.
- Posture – active listeners lean forward slightly or sit sideways. Some may also rest the head on one hand.
- Mirroring – or the process of imitating the facial expressions or posture of the speaker. Studies have shown that mirroring is a human bonding mechanism and can be used to show empathy during emotional conversations.
Verbal active listening techniques
Now that we’ve covered non-verbal techniques, let’s take a look at some verbal strategies:
- Paraphrasing (summarisation) – this means the listener restates the information given by the speaker in their own words. Paraphrasing demonstrates to the speaker that their message has been listened to and understood. It also allows the listener to clarify their understanding of the message if unsure.
- Open-ended questions – or any question that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to expand on a topic and let them know their ideas matter to the listener. It also relaxes nervous speakers since most people are quite comfortable talking about themselves and what matters to them most.
- Positive reinforcement – if used sparingly, positive reinforcement encourages the speaker to continue. Frequent use of words such as ‘yes’ or ‘indeed’ should be avoided. Instead, the listener should elaborate on why they are supportive of a particular point.
- Sharing similar experiences – when the listener shares a comparable experience, it lets the speaker know their message has been interpreted successfully. Shared experiences also encourage strong relationships to form.
- Recalling previously shared information – while the listener should never take notes during a conversation, it is worth mentioning concepts, ideas, or other points from a previous conversation. This is a good way to show the speaker that their words were listened to and made a lasting impression.
- Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks. It is distinct from the process of hearing which is passive and typically occurs in a distracted state.
- Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.
- Active listening can be supported by various non-verbal and verbal techniques. These include smiling, eye contact, mirroring, positive reinforcement, paraphrasing, and the asking of open-ended questions.
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