Active Listening is an essential skill for each and every one of us. You’re in the middle of a chat, whether at work, with family or friends and your mind starts to wander. You start thinking about all kinds of things while the person is still talking to you. This is how valuable information gets lost.
How do you feel when you tell a person something while they are distracted by another person, laptop or smartphone? Your conversation partner gives you the feeling that he or she is not actively listening. We quickly begin to ask whether the person is listening to us, or we repeat what we said. At this moment we are uncertain whether the person has understood us correctly or even listened to us.
In fact, the feeling that person is giving us at this moment is mostly negative. We feel offended. If you improve your active listening, you can at least make sure that you don’t give that feeling to anyone any longer.
Jump ahead to any of the sections below:
- What Is Active Listening
- Why Is Listening Important
- How To Actively Listen
- How To Improve Your Listening Skills
What Is Active Listening?
To start off: What’s the difference between listening and hearing? Hearing is through your ear, while listening is through your mind. Hearing is the ability to perceive sounds, and listening is to consciously analyze the sound we just heard.
Active listening is the key to strong communication skills which are part of your interpersonal skills. It is a skill that we can train and improve. Just think about how much information we take in every day.
No matter if with your boss, friend, customer or partner. We communicate for several hours every day. How often does it happen to you that you just can’t concentrate on what the person just said? The most common listening problem is, that we get distracted by our surroundings and own thoughts. This way you can miss important information.
Active listening changes all that. It is the ability to focus consciously on the conversation with the other person in order to fully capture and understand the core message of the conversation.
So what’s the purpose of active listening? Simply put: Listen to understand and listen to learn.
Carl Rogers, an American psychotherapist, has studied this phenomenon and popularized the term “active listening”. He defines active listening as a tool in psychotherapy. Through active listening, the therapist appears empathic and full of acceptance. Summarizing and repeating the statements shows genuine interest in the patient. The patient will begin to accept himself because of that.
Hence, an active listener is a person, with the ability to focus on getting the core message out of each conversation.
The important thing is to realize that you can work on this ability. You can develop and improve it through training.
When it comes to listening, most people think this way: Speaking is an active process, while listening is a passive process. That’s not quite right. In order to fully participate in a conversation, you have to start listening actively to the things your conversation partner is saying.
Why Is Listening Important?
Let’s talk about the benefits of active listening. Improving active listening as a skill contributes to a strong ability to communicate. It is one of many other communication skills but by far the most important one.
The importance of listening shows in the cultivation of relationships with others. When you actively listen to a person, the person builds trust in you and will probably begin to relax in your presence. This way you can strengthen your relationship with this person.
Good relationships, on the other hand, can be advantageous in a wide variety of areas. If you have a good connection to your colleagues at work, they will appreciate you and your working life will be more comfortable.
Another benefit of active listening is the information you gather. Listening is our approach to understanding things. When we listen actively, we understand more as we gather more information. More information creates more knowledge. It is therefore always an advantage to have more information about a certain situation or person. On the professional level alone, this can often be the decisive factor.
You can improve your professional performance by actively listening. For example, you will understand tasks better, no longer overhear critical information and be better prepared in many spontaneous situations. Not only will you be able to influence people better because you know them better, you will also be able to negotiate more effectively. All in all, you will be well-positioned because you may know more than the other person.
A well-intentioned piece of advice: listen actively without asking for anything in return. You should listen to everyone, not just to those from whom you hope to gain an advantage. Just out of respect.
How to Actively Listen: Step by Step
Now that we’ve covered in detail what active listening is, and why it’s so important, let’s talk about how to be an active listener. We have put together a list to give you a brief description of the key factors of active listening. Here are the best active listening strategies:
Focus on the Person Speaking
Even if it may sound a little obvious, concentrate completely on your conversation partner. Concentrate on everything your counterpart has to say. Give the person your full attention.
Ignore your surroundings and try to calm your own thoughts. As soon as you realize that your mind starts to wander, focus your concentration back on the person speaking. Focus on what has been said and pay attention to the posture of the person. How does it appeal to you? Does the speaker speak full of emotions, and how do the emotions look like?
It is also important that you are not distracted by dialects, idioms and other linguistic habits that the person has.
Reading emotions is an important part of being empathetic. Empathy is viewed positively by almost everyone. If you pay attention to the body language of each person, you will gain more information, because you will remember what that person’s attitude is on certain topics.
But now to the most important point: forget the counterarguments.
It often happens that while the person is speaking to us, we start looking for counterarguments to make our point or to correct the person currently speaking. Be sure to turn that off.
No matter if professionally or privately, it will give you more benefits to actively listen and strengthen your relationship with the person than to win the argument.
Give the Person the Feeling That You Are Listening
If the conversation has started, you should give your conversation partner the feeling that you are listening at regular intervals. A slight nod or smile and statements like “Mhm”, “Yes” or “I see” will give the person the feeling that you are still following the conversation.
Another important point is eye contact. Look into the eyes of your counterpart. In many cultures, eye contact is an important part of communication. It is interpreted as a polite gesture with which we signal interest and equality. So it can be perceived as disinterested and rude not to make eye contact with the person we are talking to.
Eye contact doesn’t mean you should stare at the person all the time. Relax. Sometimes it eases the mood when you look away for a moment during the conversation. The important thing is that you appear present.
Another aspect of good communication is your own body language. Your posture and facial expression are important signals that you send. Make sure your attitude is friendly, open and inviting. When a person is bored by a certain topic, you will notice it first in the posture.
So also pay attention to the physical signals you’re sending.
Feedback and Paraphrasing
Each of us has unique viewpoints and perspectives on how we accept certain things. We often condemn or look pre-loaded at certain topics. As an active listener, it is therefore important to make sure that you have understood the key message correctly, without being deluded by your own thoughts and views. Here are two simple techniques to do this:
Don’t Judge Other People’s Opinions
People with strong communication skills have mastered not judging the statements of others. If you make hasty decisions about what the person is saying to you, it is more likely that you will misunderstand the statement.
Try to listen without forming an opinion. Create it when the person has finished speaking. Above all, you should know that we all have our reasons for certain reactions.
Remember that the person who is speaking is using speech to try to communicate his or her individual thoughts and feelings to the outside world. If you do not actively listen, you will never be able to find out and understand these thoughts and feelings.
Paraphrasing, which is repeating what has been said, is an important practice that you should definitely use. If you ask someone for example: “So you mean…. have I understood that correctly?” then this has two decisive advantages.
First, you make sure that you have understood the statement correctly, and second, you give the person a feeling of being interested. No one will take it off your head if you ask. Quite the opposite, people love it when you actively listen to them.
At the end of each sentence, reflect on what the person has said. Ask questions to clarify unclear points and summarize at regular intervals the things that have been said. Be careful not to interrupt anyone, though.
Do Not Interrupt Anyone
It seems very rude to interrupt people during a conversation. If you do so, there is a chance that they will withdraw from the conversation and refuse to contribute to further discussions.
Interrupting people is a huge waste of time. It frustrates the person and prevents you from understanding the actual message. Let people speak and avoid interrupting them. Wait till the speaker says whatever he or she has to say before you get your head down.
Why do we interrupt others in the middle of a sentence? It’s related to our brain capacity. The average person can speak about 120 to 150 words per minute. Our brain, however, is able to process up to 600 words per minute. Our minds are not working at full capacity and we begin to get bored and impatient. This impatience, in turn, leads to a lack of attention.
Letting someone talk during the conversation has not only to do with your communication skills but is generally part of good manner. When you interrupt people, it sends some signals. Among other things:
- I’m more important than you
- What I have to say is more interesting
- I don’t care what your opinion is
- I don’t have time for your opinion
After your conversation partner has finished, we now come to the part where you take part in the discussion. In all cases, your language must be eloquent. However, there is something else that is much more important than the language, namely the content.
Say goodbye to the idea of always being right. You are in a conversation and not in a competition. If you attack the person or try to downplay them by making fun of their arguments or countering with your own, then it is quite likely that the person will not want to talk to you again.
When you go into a conversation, your goal should always be the following: You get information from someone described from a personal point of view. Understand what the person is saying and try to understand why they are saying this. After the person has spoken, think of an open and honest answer. Be appropriate and respectful in your tone.
Important: Keep a low profile with your own solutions. Most of us don’t necessarily want such advice. If someone does, they’ll ask you about it. People like solving their problems by themselves. If you still want to suggest your solution to the problem, ask politely if the person wants to hear your ideas.
How to Improve Your Listening Skills – Exercises for Active Listening
Since we told you about how active listening works, here are some exercises to improve your listening.
Take a Break
We are flooded with noise every day. Growing up in such a noisy world, it doesn’t bother us anymore. However, our ears are blunted, which can be a reason why we cannot actively listen. We are in the habit of simply ignoring conscious noises.
That’s why it helps to take 3 minutes a day and to give your ears a break. Surround yourself with complete silence in these 3 minutes. This way you can allow your ears to rest and “reset” them. Try that for 2-3 weeks and see if you can notice an improvement.
Be Conscious of Your Surroundings
We are in noisy environments every day, so try the following exercise. Sit in your favorite cafe and focus on what you can hear. How many sound channels do you perceive? There is always more than one sound channel in such places: the conversations of people, the clattering of dishes, the coffee grinder and many other things that our mind hides from us.
You don’t necessarily have to do this exercise in stressful environments. You might as well sit out by the lake and pay attention to the sound channels. For example, listen to the birds chirping, the water flowing and any other sounds from nature. This is a great way to improve the quality of your listening.
If you have problems listening to individual sound channels, there is a technique you can use to improve your hearing. Focus on everyday sounds. For example, you can simply listen to the tumble dryer or electric kettle. You will see that these noises can be quite interesting. Here is a video, that proves it:
Control Your Noise Filters
This is by far the hardest exercise. After figuring out how to listen to different sound channels, try to consciously focus on a single sound channel. It is more or less a matter of ignoring the unimportant ones. Control your noise filters by consciously saying to yourself: “I only hear the coffee machine now” or “I only hear the splashing of the water at the lake”.
It takes a lot of concentration and determination to become an active listener. You have to give up old habits, and that’s not easy. But it’s always worth it.
Active listening is a great skill that many of us, unfortunately, do not have at our disposal. It promotes our empathy and can give us many advantages to our people.
We have found a nice video that summarizes the most important points of our article:
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