Updated: Nov 1
For those of us that are blessed with the capacity to hear, it’s pretty shocking how bad we are at actually listening i.e. focusing and truly understanding what we are being told.
Active listening requires us to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. You make a conscious effort to ‘listen’ and understand the complete message being conveyed, rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker.
With practice, effective or active listening skills can make a big difference both personally or professionally. These are skills that help build relationships, solve problems, avoid conflict, ensure understanding, improve workplace productivity and your ability to persuade and negotiate.
There are a number of barriers to effective or active listening you should be aware of:
Noise is one of the biggest factors to interfere with active listening and our ability to concentrate on what we are hearing; it can be defined as anything that interferes with your ability to attend to and understand a message.
The four types of noise you are most likely to encounter as barriers to active listening:
Physical noise. Background noise can have a profound impact on the effectiveness of communication in several ways. Most obviously, it can simply prevent someone from actually hearing what's being said let alone understand what is being communicated.
Psychological noise. This affects communication by impairing reception of the message. Three examples of psychological noise are wandering thoughts, preconceived ideas, and sarcasm.
Physiological noise is also a distraction caused by some physiological process, i.e. the physical and chemical functions of your body. Examples of physiological processes include hunger, fatigue, headaches, pain, and the effects from medicine that impacts on the way you think or feel.
Semantic noise refers to when a person who is transmitting a message and the person receiving it have different interpretations of the meanings of certain words. For example, the word “weed” can be interpreted as an undesirable plant in a yard or as a euphemism for marijuana.
Attention span. A person can only maintain focused attention for a certain length of time. Many people argue that in today’s world we have lost the ability to sustain attention to a message. Whether or not this is true, you have probably noticed that even when your attention is glued to something in which you are deeply interested, every now and then you pause to do something else, such as getting a drink, checking your messages, social media pages or emails.
Receiver bias. Active listening involves keeping an open mind and withholding judgment until the speaker has completed what they are saying. Conversely, biased listening is characterized by jumping to conclusions; the biased listener believes, "I don’t need to listen because I already know this." Everyone has biases but good active listeners hold them in check while assessing the communication.
Listening apprehension. The fear that you might be unable to understand the message or process the information correctly or be able to adapt your thinking to include the new information. In some instances, you might worry that the information presented will be too complex for you to fully understand.
Steps to improve active listening
Be prepared: Free yourself of distractions and focus on the speaker and what they are saying. Talking to someone while they multi task, scan the room, study a computer screen, check their phone or gaze out the window is like trying to hit a moving target. How much of your undivided attention are you actually giving? Fifty percent? Probably more like 10 percent.
If it is a telephone interaction, have a pad and pen handy to take notes.
Be attentive, relaxed and concentrate. Put aside distracting thoughts. Mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise.
Listen without prejudice - keep an open mind. Try not to focus on the speaker's accent, speech mannerisms or, if English is their second or third language, their English skills to the point where they become distractions.
Listen without jumping to conclusions.
Try to listen without judging the other person or mentally criticising the things he or she tells you. If what he or she says alarms you, go ahead and feel alarmed, but don't say to yourself, "Well, that was a fairly dumb move." As soon as you indulge in judgmental bemusements, you've compromised your effectiveness as an active listener.
Do not interrupt or cut them off. Remember that the person communicating with you is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside his or her brain. Unless you have mind reading powers you do not know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you will find out is by listening fully.
Interrupting sends a variety of messages:
“I am more important than you are” (You are not)
“What I have to say is more interesting” (It’s not)
“I do not care what you think” (You really should)
“I do not have time for your opinion” (Who made you God?)
We all think and communicate at different rates. If you are a quick thinker and an agile talker, the burden is on you to relax your pace of thought and expressions for the slower, more thoughtful communicator or for the person who has trouble expressing themselves.
Ask questions to clarify what they are saying. When you do not understand something, ask the speaker to explain. Rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues. We gain a great deal of information about each other through the way a message is communicated through non-verbal communication – tone of voice and body language. When actively listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message.
Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person's place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be him or her at that moment. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it facilitates good communication like nothing else.
In verbal interchanges demonstrate that you can appreciate what the speaker is trying to convey. If the speaker's feelings are hidden or unclear, then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message.
Nodding coupled with appropriate facial expressions in face to face interactions demonstrates your desire to understand. In telephone calls taking notes (as highlighted earlier) and the occasional well-timed “I see” as you do, illustrates that you are listening to what’s being communicated.
Summarise especially when someone has a grievance. They want to be heard and know that you ‘get’ what they are complaining about. By providing them with a summary of what they have just told you (from your notes and what you recall), it demonstrates that you have received the message loud and clear.
The benefits of developing your active listening skills
Builds trust. As you cultivate the habit of listening actively, you invite people to open up. They can sense that you will not be jumping to conclusions based on superficial details. They also realise that you care enough about them to listen attentively and take on board what it is they are saying. While building trust takes time, it leads to great benefits such as customer retention and business development and growth.
Broadens your perspective. Listening to fully comprehend other people’s perspectives allows you to look at situations from different viewpoints, some of which you may not have thought of before.
Strengthens your patience. The ability to be a good active listener takes time and you need to develop these skills with regular effort. But, as you do, an automatic benefit is that you develop patience. Patience to let the other person express his or her views, feelings and thoughts honestly, while you do not judge.
Makes you approachable. As you present yourself as a patient listener, people feel more naturally inclined to communicate with you.
Increases competence and knowledge. In the workplace great active listening skills make team members more competent and capable, regardless of their position. The more an individual can get information out of telephone interaction, meetings, training sessions, instructions, and reports provided to him or her, the more efficient and successful they will be at completing tasks.
Reduces the likelihood of mistakes. Effective or active listening reduces the risk of misunderstanding and mistakes. Critical in any environment.