How often do you have a conversation, only to realise halfway through that you've zoned out and you've not actually been taking in information? Active listening is a skill which requires thought and practice, but in the long term will help you to listen rather than just hear.
Listening is a skill we use constantly, whether that is during conversations at work, listening to the radio or for learning and the obtaining of information. However, it's quite often taken a little for granted that we are always listening. For something we regularly perform, one would expect that we would be good at it; however, the reality is that we are in general rather poor at retaining information gathered through listening. Research on this topic is diverse and varying in results, but the general notion is that we retain anywhere between 17% and 50% of what we hear. If you think about it, this has some major implications both in and outside of the workplace. It's equivalent to having a 10-minute conversation, and the other party only remembers 5 minutes of the information at best.
So how do we tackle this apparent epidemic of information loss? Active listening is widely regarded as a tool for tackling the deficits we experience from regular listening. The goal of active listening is to make a conscious effort to hear the complete message being communicated rather than simply hearing the words and rely on our minds to stitch the message together. The biggest obstacle to listening is ‘glazing over’, or become distracted, active listening enables you to recognise and avoid doing so. With this in mind, what are the steps to practice and internalise the art of active listening?
Firstly, pay attention. For active listening to truly be effective, you need to be paying full attention to the individual speaking and what they are saying. This means that you look at the speaker directly, blocking out any potential physical distractions that might be occurring around you. Concentrate on the message that they are conveying and try to understand what it is they are conveying to you. This is important as it means that you are not only focused on the subject at hand, but it also enables you to block out mental distractions.
Do not interrupt or focus on formulating your reply. Replies and questions should come naturally once they have stopped speaking, as you are able to draw on all of the information they have provided rather than just a part of it, which you would be doing if you lose focus and begin forming an answer too early. Don’t forget to ‘listen’ to their body language, as this supplements and provides context to what they are saying. For example, agitated body language would imply that they are worried about what they are telling you, and therefore helps you to build a sense of urgency surrounding the topic.
Secondly, show them you are listening. It is not enough to simply pay attention to someone if you don’t show them you are - do not risk them becoming disengaged! The communication of information is a two-way street - if you do not show them that you’re listening, they may cut their monologue short or become disengaged themselves, meaning that once again information is lost. Showing them that they have your attention is easy: pay regular eye contact, don't look away, nod occasionally, smile and display emotions in response to what they are saying, avoid a closed off posture and provide cues to continue speaking such as ‘yes’ and ‘go on’.
Thirdly, provide feedback. This is important as it allows you to ask them to expand on points through the use of phrases such as ‘sounds like you’re saying..’ or questions such as ‘..is this what you mean?’. Furthermore, this allows you to reiterate what they have told you to create a revision of sorts. Repetitions allow you to learn the true meaning as well as help you to remember the information. You should always ensure you are responding appropriately - this means respectfully, honestly and openly.
To get the full understanding of what an individual has said to you, you need to follow all of these stages. During the conversation, your mind should have been working to contemplate what they are saying, in order for you to formulate a response. However, it's not always the case that you will interpret the information correctly the first time around. Once the conversation is over, reflect back on what has been said. Often when we're spoken to, we think we haven't heard what has been said, only for our brain to fill in the gaps and realise that we actually did a few seconds late. Look back, consider the conversation. What was said? How were they saying it? What was the context? How does that affect things? Work through it as if it were a story, try to understand where they are coming from and why it was important enough for them to say.