Think of active listening as a skill. It’s the skill of communication between two people who have a different perspective on how life works. It is also a fact of life that each of us perceives each experience with some similarities and some differences. Each of us makes meaning out of every experience. As we age in the ideal environment, we also learn to take responsibility for the meaning we have made in life so far. Keeps these points in mind as we progress through the exercise below.
One reason active listening is so important is for people to sort out different perspectives that emerge in conversations. If either person has a different perspective, which most often they do, it can trigger fear. A person’s background, their ability to suspend judgment while listening, will determine how much fear plays a part in the success or failure in any conversation.
The holy grail of effective listening is when you can witness your reaction and make a conscious choice that produces an optimal result. For example, Sally and Harold are having a tough conversation about how the night before she was trying to express her concern at how fast Harold was driving. She had made a request for him to slow down and he made a snarky remark that triggered fear in her about her needs getting met in the relationship.
When we unpack this scenario, there are a lot of layers and a simple solution. First, we know it’s a good thing to ask for what you want. Yet, we also know when we are coming from a place of fear, our request can come across as controlling.
If Sally and Harold apply active listening skills to this scenario, it may sound something like this:
Harold: “Yes, Sally: “I’m hearing you are upset at my knee jerk response last night when you asked me to slow down.”
Sally “Yes, I am. I want to share my fears and feel understood, not shamed or dismissed.”
This is the ideal response, but there is another layer to consider that has to do with responsibility.
When we take personal responsibility for our happiness, we realize that each of us is making meaning out of everything. That it is the meaning I assign to anything that gives it its power.
If we apply the principle of personal responsibility for our own happiness, the conversation may also include:
Harold: “Yes Sally, I can see why you were upset. In retrospect, I tried to shame you by demeaning your request. I’m sorry about that.
Sally: “Well thank you Harold. I appreciate your apology and I can also see I was quite fearful. I was afraid my needs would not get met. To compensate, I had a controlling tone in my request as well. I’m sorry I was not more skilled at making my request.”
In this scenario, we have two layers of self-awareness. The first layer is using active listening as the guide to mine for meaning and keeping things safe for each other. The second layer includes responsibility.
Responsibility assumes we have some kind of outcome we want and a reflective process in place to decide how well we manifested the outcome. This “ideal” outcome is a useful tool to compare the result we got from the result we wanted. It reminds us that our unconscious mind will reveal issues or meanings from the past that we may want to question about ourselves.
Listening Skills Definition
Think of listening skills as the act of engaging our perception via hearing and interpreting – with another person or group. It’s easy to also consider listening skills can fall on a spectrum from poor listening skills to excellent listening skills.
The key point to remember is our ability to listen is influenced by our perceptions which are based on past experience. You and I both know, our past experiences are often fraught with missing information and mis-interpretations because when we are little we have very limited critical thinking skills.
In this article, we will list out some of the ideal skills that will enhance your ability to listen and communicate better.
Ideal Listening Skills
Some of the listening skills that will enhance your abilities to have optimal communication include:
- Active listening
- Presencing skills
- Attunement skills
- Self reflection
- Shifting into curiosity and open perspective when your beliefs and values are being challenged or questioned
- Be aware of your body language
- Discern when to give advice versus pulling the answers out of the peer or employee in distress
- Paraphrase what you hear
- Maintain eye contact 80% of the time
- Taking personal responsibility for how you listen and communicate
- Taking personal responsibility for making request when you need something
- Taking personal responsibility for your perceptions and the meaning you make out of everything
- Communicated to you asking follow up questions for clarification
- Investigating inferences and assumptions
- Creating more space when you get triggered
- Empathy: staying curious about the other person’s experience
- Taking an inventory of how you may have contributed to a less than ideal outcome
- Repairing the relationship when there has been a breach
- Noticing any self talk that contributes or changes your contributing dynamics to any outcome
Listening Skills Practices
Practice 1: Repeating Back Sit across from your partner and agree with each other to practice active listening.
Once you have agreement, decide who will go first.
The starting person, we’ll call person “A”, is to tell a short 1-2 minute story.
Person B is to repeat back the essence of what “A” said.
Person A is to report back to person B how accurate they were.
In this phase, repeat back what you heard adding no spin on it.
Practice 2: Identify the main point of the speaker's message
In this practice, the person listening will say what they think the main point was or the essence of what is trying to be conveyed is.
It would sound something like, “Am I hearing that you were confused about why your boss said the things he said?”
Practice sharing a story back and forth between each other. The listeners goal is to report back what they think is the main key point.
Listening in Communication
One pillar of healthy communication is active listening skills. The goal of active listening is to strive to receive and interpret messages. Remember, we are meaning making machines. We make meaning out of everything. This implies we must also learn healthy responsibility for how we interpret and express feedback to the messages and meanings we are assigning any interaction.
It’s each of our’s job to pause and investigate inferences and assumptions we make in all interactions. I recommend to be scanning yourself for what wants to be shared and all the while recognizing the consequences of sharing your interpretations.
Listening Skills In The Workplace
If you are a skilled listener at work, you will benefit. Work environments, depending on the culture, can often limit the range of how honest a person can be. A healthy culture would encourage complete honesty yet today there are so many lawsuits and laws protecting people against discrimination and harassment. It’s a very expensive proposition for companies if they cannot manage this well. As a result, human resource groups are conservative about how much they will tolerate with managing conflict. The often extreme measures send the message into the culture that it is not safe to ask for what you want or to complain.
That said, I would encourage you to learn some basic listening skills to increase your level of having a safe-haven to work in but also to give you an advantage how you can behave gives the constraints that may be imposed by the company culture.
First, the list above also applies to the workplace. I would also add:
- Lean towards listening more than giving advice
- Learn how to make it safe for others to share
- Investigate each other’s needs and wants until you can find a win-win solution
- Ask for what you want to the right people
- Learn conflict management skills
- Learn to repair with others when you can tell something feels unresolved
- Be generous with affirming people
- Be aware of non-verbal signals going on in the room
- Willingness to face reality and don’t sugar coat interactions in your own head space
- Early on, in the relationship with your company, I would test if Human Resources or if managers are trained to handle conflict or give effective feedback. Make your request then notice how people respond.
Barriers To Effective Listening
Here are some of the more common barriers to effective listening:
- Lack in the ability to create a safe environment for others
- Not taking a genuine interest in the other’s perspective
- Lack of empathy for the speaker’s needs and wants
- Lack of self awareness
- Not being self aware enough to notice when you are not understanding the core message being conveyed - Listening to other when you are not available and not saying so
- Thinking about what you are going to say rather than listening to what matters most to the speaker
- Comparing your experience to what the speaker is sharing and then interrupting them before they finish their point
- Dismissive behaviors from the listener
- Agreeing to things you are not wanting
Listening skills will serve you your entire life. It is worth taking the time and effort to learn and practice them. Your personal and work life will improve the better you get at listening. You will trust yourself more and advance further in your career with good listening skills.
Ed Ferrigan has been teaching individuals, couples, groups and teams communication skills for the past 25 years. You can learn more about his unique model by heading on over to https://edferrigan.com. Be sure to check out is different programs for online learning while you are there.