Better Results with Active Listening

Jason De Boer

Listening is one of the most common and important things that we do. Recent research on work behaviour suggests that we spend approximately 9% of our time writing, 16% of our time reading, 30% of our time talking and 45% of our time listening.

Listening is a fundamental part of the communication process. Regardless of the type of job you do or the industry in which you work, it is important to understand the listening process, have an awareness of barriers to listening effectively, and learn how to listen actively.

Listening as a process
Hearing and listening are not the same thing. In fact, hearing is just the first of three stages in the listening process, all of which are fairly obvious but still worth remembering.

- Hearing Simply the process of sound waves being transformed by our brains into impulses.

- Attention Important so that we can hear what is being said to us, but often difficult due to distractions such as noise intrusion or internal distractions such as thinking about something else rather than what is being said.

- Understanding This is the most crucial aspect of the process on a number of levels. As well as understanding what is being said, we need to try to understand the context of the message, and understand the significance of any verbal or non-verbal clues from the speaker. Having a degree of background knowledge regarding the speaker or the subject is also helpful.


Barriers to listening
In most situations there are a number of obstacles which can stop us from listening effectively, and as a trainer it is important to appreciate what these obstacles are and how to overcome each of them. Broadly speaking, there are four types of barriers to listening –

- Psychological barriers, including prejudice, apathy or fear on the part of the listener. For example, someone working in marketing or production may not be as interested in a presentation on annual financial results as an accountant or sales director, given that it may not directly impact on their day to day activities.

- Physical barriers, including disability, fatigue or poor health on the part of the listener. For example, trying to listen to a speaker for long periods while you are suffering from a heavy cold is a fairly difficult thing to do.

- Environmental barriers, including distracting noises, uncomfortable or poorly positioned seating, or an unsuitable climate such as an overheated, stuffy meeting room.

- Expectation barriers, such as anticipating a mundane or boring presentation, expecting to receive bad news, or being spoken to in confusing jargon.

In a work or educational situation, you can certainly address tangible barriers such as environmental factors or physical obstacles. Dealing with internal barriers can be more difficult, but a lot of this can be achieved by thorough preparation before any meetings or group sessions.


Active listening
In order to understand the concept and value of active listening, it is worth considering it as one of three different types of listening.

- Competitive listening You will see this most often in negotiation situations, or when politicians are debating with each other. The person being spoken to is more interested in getting their own point of view across when the other person stops speaking, rather than acknowledging what they have just heard. Alternatively, they are distracted by thinking about their own argument or point of view rather than listening properly.

- Passive or attentive listening This is always a danger in lecture style presentation sessions. An audience will pay attention to the slides and listen carefully to the speaker, but there is no real opportunity to interact. This means that the speaker may not know how well their message is being understood.

- Active listening This is the best way to listen for and understand the real message in what people are saying. It involves taking the next step from just listening attentively, by looking to show obvious interest in what the speaker is saying, and by trying to interact with them. As a manager, salesperson or trainer you need to try to use active listening yourself, and provide opportunities for colleagues, customers and learners to use active listening techniques as well. This is of particular importance when involved in informal training activities such as coaching and mentoring.

In terms of outlining the techniques which can be used for active listening, it is useful to think back to the three basic stages of the listening process – hearing, attention and understanding.

Hearing and attention
- First and hopefully obviously, stop talking.
- Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible, both external and internal.
- Try to control your own non-verbal signals to the person speaking. This could mean paying attention to your physical stance, your body movements, eye contact with the speaker, and encouraging motions such as nodding or smiling.

Understanding
- Make sure that you understand the purpose of the speaker, and also be aware of you want from the conversation.
- It also helps to take notes, but try to focus on writing down key words and phrases that will jog your memory later, rather than trying to write down everything that is being said in an act of dictation.
- If possible, try to ask questions. You can use the notes you have written to remind you of points that need clarification. Try not to interrupt though!
- Finally, try to use the technique of reflecting what the speaker says to you.

Reflecting
This is a technique used extensively by people involved in consultative selling, but it is also a very useful tool for anyone involved in business, education, training or voluntary work. Communication can be broken down into three levels – facts, thoughts (or beliefs) and feelings (or emotions). Reflecting works on all three levels.

- Repeat the facts that you think you have been given by the speaker. This is sometimes referred to as ‘parroting’. If you are right, you know that you are getting the basic elements of what the speaker is telling you. If you have made any mistakes, this gives you both an opportunity to get back on to the same page.

- Also share the thoughts or beliefs that you have heard, and try to convey the underlying feelings or emotions which you believe are involved. For example, the speaker may be very upset and wants you to display empathy or sympathy with their situation. It is this reflection of thoughts and feelings which distinguishes reflecting from just parroting back to the speaker, which might get a bit tedious and annoying for all concerned.

Again, this is a very useful tool when coaching or mentoring. It can also be used during feedback sessions in a more formal situation such as a performance review meeting.

Jason De Boer is founder and managing director of my-skills limited. He has worked in senior management roles within publishing for the last ten years and is a member of the CIPD. This article is an abridged extract from the Training Skills eBook published by my-skills

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