Have you ever been in a conversation with someone so focused on their phones that after spilling your guts, they tell you to repeat it because they were not paying attention to what you were saying? Maybe you were that person who, while paying attention to something else, missed the chance to communicate with someone honestly and then misunderstood them.
Communicating with other people is not a bed of roses. While letting go of your mobile devices (in the case of a physical meeting), staying focused without drifting off is challenging. The human attention span is short. Listening to hear is already challenging, and practising active listening is much more challenging.
Maybe you are thinking, “Well, I am a great listener. I nod and hear when people talk. I try not to intrude when people are speaking.” While this is good and encouraged, active listening goes beyond the silence and the absence of digital devices. It is so much more than listening. So what is active listening meaning, and what do you need to know how to actively listen? Let’s dive into that right away!
Active listening definition
Before we define active listening, you need to know that there are two types of listening.’ What you already know — nodding your head, keeping quiet, staying off your phone — is not what active listening is.
So what is that called? Say hello to passive listening.
Passive listening involves one-sided communication. It happens when the listener has a collection of information but no engagement or reaction from their end. So you’re listening… but that’s the only thing you do.
Now, let’s answer the question: What is active listening?
Listening actively is a part of communication that involves paying full attention to what the speaker is saying and trying to understand it by reacting and responding thoughtfully. Did you take note of that — ‘reacting and responding thoughtfully?’ That’s what makes the difference.
Active listening skills
There are four basic active listening skills. They include: receiving, understanding, evaluating, and responding. Below are more details on each:
As the first step, you simply focus on the message the speaker is sending your way. There’s no activeness here, but you need to be focused on being present.
Here, you start to process the information you have received. The things you need to do during this stage include understanding the context of what is said, the meaning, and the emotions by which the message is conveyed.
You should begin to analyse the received message from your perspective at this stage. This is where most people get it wrong. They usually evaluate before understanding, which is the basis of arguments and misunderstandings. After you have understood the context and the meaning of what is being said, you can compare it with what you already know to have a deeper understanding.
Now, you can speak. This can be a question, a comment, encouragement, or a reply to push the conversation forward.
Benefits of active listening
Due to humans’ short attention spans, it is not natural for humans to actively listen. However, this is a skill that can and should be learned. There are many benefits of active listening for both you and the speaker. Here are a few of them:
- Responding makes it less likely for you to zone off when someone is talking to you.
- Understanding things comes easy to you when you listen actively.
- Listening actively helps you know what questions to ask, which is handy during job interviews.
- Your relationships (romantic, friends, work, etc.) will thrive better with healthy communication and listening.
- Conflicts would de-escalate faster with higher hopes of finding a resolution. Note that the only reason there are conflicts in the first place is when there is a misunderstanding or a disagreement fueled by lousy communication.
- When people discover you actively listen, you’ll build trust and strengthen your relationships.
- People would feel more comfortable talking to you.
- Active listening leads to better teamwork and team collaboration in a work environment.
- It also helps all team members work more efficiently since everyone is on the same page without misunderstandings.
- Listening actively can help you gather relevant information to solve problems faster and more efficiently in relative situations.
Why is actively listening important?
Besides the ten benefits of active listening, people who actively listen give the world three gifts. They are:
It is a sign of respect
Listening actively to another person is a sign of respect toward the other person; you know what they say — respect can be reciprocated. If you can foster a deeper connection between you and the speaker by listening right, imagine how you have made the world better.
You’ll reduce stress
Not for you, but for the speaker. Imagine how annoying it is to repeat one thing too many times just because the person listening was passive. It is not just frustrating, but it is also stressful.
It is a sign of effective leadership
Whether you accept it or not, you are a leader. It’s either you’re leading at work, society, school, or family. As a leader, listening actively is a skill that cannot be matched. If you can master this skill, you will not only make better decisions, but you will also have the power to influence the people you lead.
How to actively listen?
Speaking of active listening skills, how can you listen actively? All you have to do is follow these ten things, and you’ll be ready.
- Be present, get rid of distractions, and focus on the conversation.
- Maintain eye contact and react when needed. Things you can do include nodding occasionally and having open body language.
- Don’t judge the speaker in your head or have your conversations in your head.
- Just because we said you should avoid talking in your head doesn’t mean you can cut in. Avoid interrupting.
- Don’t listen to respond but understand. Don’t wait for your turn to talk and attack; try to understand what the speaker is saying.
- Repeat the key points you have heard during pauses to show that you are actively listening.
- Ask questions during pauses to clarify the confusion. Open-ended questions are best in this situation.
- After the speaker has made some points, summarise to show that you are actively listening. Give feedback and words of encouragement when needed.
- Don’t forget emotions. If the speaker is talking about her upcoming wedding, it would be weird to retain a straight face. Smile with her.
- Don’t rush the speaker to talk faster. Allow them to speak at the pace they feel comfortable with.
Examples of active listening
Below are some examples of active listening portrayed in real-life situations. There will also be examples of passive listening so that you see the difference between the two.
- “My boss just gave me a thousand more things to do today. I am so overwhelmed.”
Passive: Oh wow / What did you say?
Active: What things did he ask you to do?
2. “I feel like you don’t consider my ideas often.”
Passive: That’s not true. Can you prove it?
Active: I understand that you feel unheard, and I am sorry you feel that way. But can you elaborate on what you mean or share examples of when you felt this way so we can find a solution together?
3. “Do you think everyone on this team should move to the sales department for training?”
Active: If I understand you, you’re asking for my opinions on whether or not this team should move to the sales department for training. I believe they should/shouldn’t because…
4. “I feel really nervous about tomorrow’s exam.”
Passive: Me too / I, on the other hand, am super confident that I will top my papers.
Active: Why are you nervous? Is there anything in particular that is bothering you about the upcoming exam? What can I do to help you?
5. “Let me tell you how my mum and I found the hat I told you I lost.”
Passive: No problem, just hurry up with the story.
Active: Is it that hat you mentioned you lost while on your way home last week Friday after work? How did you and your mum find the hat? And when? Tell me all about it. I’m all ears.
From each example, you can see that the active listener either paraphrases, asks questions, shows genuine interest, or does all three. The active listener isn’t just responding to the speaker but is receiving, understanding, and evaluating before responding.
It takes work to learn how to listen actively. It takes a lot of practice, conscious decisions, and a genuine desire to learn. However, if you find learning this skill harder than ever, or you suffer from anxiety where you cannot listen to someone for too long, you might need more help. Consider visiting the guidance counsellor so that you can talk through your challenges and find a solution to an active form of listening in no time.