How you can improve your listening skills and be an active listener
What makes a good listener?
Do you know what it takes to be a good listener? For those of blessed with good hearing, listening is a primary sense and the audible environment shapes how we interact with the world. Considering how important hearing is, it is therefore amazing how bad our listening can be at times, and by that I mean our focussed attention on what we are listening to.
Just think of the last time someone asked you, “Are you actually listening to me?” If you have a significant other my bet is that it may have been days if not hours ago!
Achieving a level of mastery of effective listening is not easy and does require skill. But these are skills, not character traits, and although some people may be naturally better at listening, everyone can learn the principles and improve through practice; this has certainly been my experience (although as my wife will point out, there is plenty of room for improvement!)
Before looking at the skills involved in effective listening we need to answer the question: what is effective listening? Effective listening should have a positive impact, particularly on the speaker. First and foremost effective listening should result in making a person feel valued. Understanding is important, but secondary to this. Effectual listening should give a person space to think, to explore their feelings and construct what they want to say.
To achieve this level of effectiveness there are a few key skills that can really make the difference: providing the right environment; focused attention; empathy; and active listening.
The Right Environment
The right environment is one that allows the person to feel at ease and gives them a platform to think and speak. This environment is physical, emotional and intellectual.
The physical environment should be comfortable and free of distraction or undue pressure for both the subject and the person listening. This is why it is often good to take someone away from his or her immediate work environment.
The demeanour, tone and body language of the listener helps to create the right emotional environment. Maintaining eye contact while listening, keeping an open posture, keeping mostly silent but giving occasional encouragement helps with this. Avoid fidgeting or looking at your watch. Completing people’s sentences or guessing words for them will also undermine the supportive environment you are creating. Most importantly of all, don’t interrupt!
The questions you pose to whomever you are listening to help to ensure the right intellectual environment, and these combined create what Nancy Kline defines as the Thinking Environment (1999), where there is a sense of attention, ease and appreciation.
Once a good listening environment has been created it is then important to give the person focused attention. They need to feel that they are being heard and as the listener, you need to be sure you are hearing what they are saying. This is harder than it sounds because as Stephen Covey notes, the problem is “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (1989: 239). To overcome this you need to mentally close off invading thoughts, comments and answers that you might have.
I am a solution-orientated person so I have often struggled with the deluge of ideas, experiences and comparisons that can come rushing in when someone is speaking. Knowing that the power of coaching is allowing people to come up with their own solutions I have developed strategies to deal with this. One mental technique I use is visualising shutting a door on each invading thought to actively close them out, so I can re-focus on what is being said.
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Once you have the right level of attention on what is being said, the next step is to connect with the feelings that are being expressed. As Daniel Kahneman observes, it’s very hard to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe (2011). Therefore we need to understand the emotive context of their language.
To understand the emotional subtext to the words being said we need to listen to the other person’s viewpoint and start to comprehend things from their perspective. This is something that requires emotional intelligence as defined by Salovey and Mayer (1990).
What does it mean to actively listen?
The combining of the right environment, focus and empathy creates the conditions for active listening. Bresser and Wilson describe active listening as the highest level of listening (2006) and Julie Starr states that active listening is a fundamental skill within coaching (2008). When active listening is being used then the listener has a fuller understanding of what is being communicated, can recall what a person has said and, when appropriate, reflect, paraphrase or respond to the speaker.
When actively listening to someone I find it is possible to get into a state of flow where there is an increased level of energy and focus. Using the steps of creating the right environment and then tuning into people’s feelings quickens this process. Continual practice is helping me – and can help anyone – achieve this state more frequently and for longer. I also find that a period of preparation beforehand facilitates this state more quickly. Equally, time for reflection after a conversation can help me critique my listening with a view to be even better the next time around.
You can always be better
Even simple skills require mastery but the good news is everyone can get better at both. We can all employ active listening that makes people feel valued. We can strive to use incisive questions that challenge assumptions and deepen understanding. Through this we can all be part of unlocking people’s potential. Knowing this inspires me to keep practicing these skills and helping people become more effective at achieving their goals.
Brasser, F and Wilson, C (2006) What is Coaching?, in Passmore, J (ed) Excellence in Coaching, London: Kogan Page
Covey, S R (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, London: Simon and Schuster
Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Kline, N (1999) Time to Think. London: Ward Lock
Salovey, P and Mayer, J D (1990) Emotional Intelligence, Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, pp185-211
Starr, J (2008) The Coaching Manual. Harlow: Pearson Education