I am a coach, so active listening is a key skill that I use every day at work. Listening without prejudice, assumptions, or judgement. It is not always easy, but it is a skill and as such it can be trained and developed.
Active listening is when you are fully aware of and concentrate on what is being said rather than passively hearing what the speaker is trying to convey. The goal of active listening is to understand people’s point of view or ideas first without immediate judgement.
I often picture communication as a river, where the communicating parties stand on two opposite banks of the river. If you truly want to understand the other person, you need to leave your side of the river and stand next to the other person. In other words, you need to leave your own world and step into the reality of the other person.
What often happens though, even in a casual conversation is that when someone shares their experience with you, instead of actively listening, we quickly jump in and say: “Oh yes, sure I have also experienced that," or "I also have a headache," or "I also had a fight with my boss," etc.
What happens then? We are not engaging ourselves with the other person, we stand on our side of the river, and we are busy with our own story. As such, we show the other person that we do not really care about their story. We are busier with promoting our own. That doesn’t mean that we can never share our own story, but the first step in building a relationship is letting the other person know that we see and hear them.
What also often happens when someone shares their problem is that we immediately give advice on how to solve it. However, often people are not interested in solutions, sometimes they just want to complain and have someone who will simply listen. Should you still feel you have a brilliant solution you want to share, first ask for permission to do so. In this case, you let the other person decide if they are open to listening to your solution and as such you increase the chance that they are actually going to consider it.
Why is the skill of active listening so hard to acquire?
There are couple of reasons why active listening is difficult. Firstly, there is noise in the communication: it could be external noise, or internal (psychological). For example, you do not like the person who is talking, or you are just preoccupied with your own problem at the moment.
Secondly, we humans have a limited attention span and the digital era is not helping us with that, so we are very quickly distracted.
The third reason is related to bias; we already think that we know what the person is going to say. Maybe because we already heard a lot on the topic, or we just assume that the person is going to repeat something we know.
The good part is that active listening is a skill and can be acquired with time and patience. It is about focus and understanding and looking at things from different perspectives for the greater good. When we listen, we show that we care and that this person is important to us. This way, listening has a huge and undervalued power of transforming relationships.
Actively listening can also play a crucial role in solving conflicts. Conflicts are often the result of clashing values, where people choose to stick to their own values and beliefs and are not open to understanding the other person’s point of view. Asking open and judgement-free questions can also help us in active listening. These types of questions show that we are interested and want to put effort into understanding the position of the other person.
Seek to understand
Practising active listening can help us get to the other side of that river, to understand the other person’s perspective, to walk into their shoes. Quoting Stephen R. Covey this means: “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”
How good are your active listening skills? Let us know in the comments below!