The Art of Listening

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols

Listening, like walking, is an act that we take for granted, but there is a significant difference between hearing and listening, and listening and active listening.

Within the process of communication, the act of hearing, assuming no impediment to the process, involves registering sounds, which may or may not be recognised as words and sentences which make up information.

Unsurprisingly, active listening is an absolute skill required by those who wish to master the RESOLVE model and approach.  It is normally a lack of skill in the area of listening that probably created a problem in the first place!

The difference between Listening and Active Listening could be considered to what is called a construct.  At one end I may simply be attending to the speaker, without making any attempt to comprehend what they are saying, where my interaction is minimal, I may have little or no interest in them or their point of view, or have no intention of retaining any of their content, and I have no interest in challenging or exploring their ideas. This is sometimes referred to as passive listening. The other end would be deep active listening.

The Chinese characters that make up the verb to listen, point to a much more involved and comprehensive process than just hearing words, and highlight what is involved in the process of active listening;

Active listening is a holistic process which, as the term implies, suggests active involvement on behalf of the listener. An active listener makes a conscious decision to give the speaker full attention.  It requires commitment and a focus on the process of listening in order to understand the messages of the speaker. As such it is one of the foundation skills that underpin the RESOLVE process

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” 
― M. Scott Peck,

The intent behind the process could serve any one of several purposes. I might actively listen:

  • for understanding and comprehension
  • in order show attention and concern, building trust and confidence as a result
  • to the content of the speaker, to appreciate a situation or perspective
  • to appreciate what the other person is feeling, and to demonstrate empathy
  • deeply to the concerns, fears, hopes, anxieties of another, to really understand their position and point of view, as well as their emotional attachment to the topic
  • to the whole person, to gain a better understanding about their values and believes, and perhaps their unspoken needs

The Active Listening Mindset

Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills, but to listen well and effectively to another person requires the listener to change their frame of reference:

Active listeners remain neutral and non-judgmental in their listening: as a consequence, they put their own thoughts, beliefs and prejudices to one side and openly listen to the speaker, not to decide if they are right or wrong, but to understand the other person’s perspective on an issue, or problem.

Active listening, by its very nature, requires patience, where the speaker is given the opportunity, time and space to state their case, or to explore a theme or an idea. Active listeners should resist the temptation to pose a question or comment every time there is a period of silence; since moments of reflection are accepted and are normal.  A period of silence does not imply that nothing is going on, since the person being listened to is actually thinking and processing information or sorting out how they feel about something.

Although this approach to listening is normally undertaken by counsellors and therapists and others in the ‘helping’ professions, the skill set, used appropriately, has equal validity in leadership, management, coaching, mentoring and teaching.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” 

― Bernard M. Baruch

What affects listening?

Considerable research demonstrates clearly that the actual spoken words, the verbal content, only makes up a small percentage of the message we convey, depending on the context in which we are communicating (i.e. face to face, on the phone etc.).  Voice tone and all aspects of non-verbal communication make up the remainder to the message.  Consequently, even when we are not saying anything, we are actually sending content out to others.  When we are speaking, there is far more involved in our message than just the words we convey.

Active listening therefore involves not only means focusing fully on all aspects of the speaker’s communication, but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening.

Like all ‘skill’ based activities, the process of becoming a competent active listener takes time and commitment.  However, there are a number of accessible and straight forward techniques that can be used to demonstrate that as a person you are actively listening to another, some of which are appropriate in particular contexts and may be significantly influenced by different national cultures.

Build Trust and Establish Rapport: By presenting a neutral and interested posture, and demonstrating that you are willing to listen and offer support, you build a bridge between yourself and the other person.  Simple open invitations to talk can help to develop and establish a productive communication opportunity. E.g. “tell me more about this”, or “it sounds as though you have a lot going on at the moment, what would you most like to talk about?”

Attentive listeners tend to lean slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting and may include a slight slant of the head. By maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, smiling and saying “OK” or simply “Ah ha”, “I know”, “Fine”, or “I understand”, you not only convey Interest to the speaker but encourage them to continue.  Providing this ‘feedback’ helps the person speaking feel more at ease and ensures the communication is open, free and honest.

Mirroring: Acting as a mirror and reflecting back facial expressions used by the speaker is useful techniques within attentive listening: many people do this automatically, and manage to convey sympathy and empathy in more emotional situations.  Consciously mimicking facial expressions implies the emphasis is miss placed and can be distracting.

Focus: Active listening happens by conscious effort, which requires a degree of commitment to the process. This is normally portrayed by people who are still and focused and who are not fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, drawing on a piece of paper, fiddling with their hair or picking at their clothes.

Demonstrate Concern: By leaning forward, and focusing on the person and their context, you give them permission to talk to you about things that matter to them:  “I would like to help you if I can; I know you are going through some tough challenges.” “I know how hard it is to adjust to a different boss”

Confirm and Repeat the Content: As the listener, you should then be able to repeat back to them what they have said to their satisfaction. Make sure you use their words and do not substitute your own; this demonstrates clearly that you have been listening: “So you are finding it hard to use the IT system.” “You would like to know more about how to ask for support.”

Paraphrase or Summarise: People often talk for a while, so rather than just repeating back what they have said, it is useful from time to time to see if you can bring all the threads together. The summary does not mean you agree with the person, but serves to clarify what you understand they are saying.  It is best followed by silence so that the speaker can absorb how what they have said makes sense to another person: “So, you are saying that you are worried about playing a contact sport for the first time.” “So, you are concerned that you have not made the number of friends you thought you would.”

Ask Open-Ended Questions:  The whole process of active listening is geared towards creating shared understanding.  By asking, who, when, and more importantly how and what questions, we ensure that we challenge our own assumptions, and let the speaker tell the story from their perspective: “I can see that the experience during this lesson was very upsetting to you. What aspect of the discussion affected you the most?” “It’s clear that your workload is causing you some problems. What changes would make most difference?”

Ask Specific Questions:  Closed questions in this context should only serve to help you gain more information, or confirm your understanding; they are usually second choice in the open/closed options: “Which meals do you enjoy most?” “How long does it take you to complete your emails each evening?” So, you are saying that you still have not been allocated a car park space, is that right?

Gain more understanding, rather than present your opinion: Active listeners are aware of their own internal self talk; then can put to one side their own thoughts, values and judgements and focus on what the speaker is saying.  Often a listener will want to jump in and give an opinion, or a view: doing so risks breaking the rapport and changes the dynamic of the listening relationship: “Tell me more about your how you think this change would work.” “Can you please give me some examples of how you think you might be able to manage your report writing more effectively?”

Disclose Similar Situations: Speakers often perceive that they are alone and that their issue is unique – which can add to feelings of loneliness.  Sharing a similar situation whereby someone found a way forward, can add hope and refocus thoughts and feelings: “New staff who join ABC company often take a while to settle in, but they eventually get into the way work is done here.”  “Sometimes in the past, other members of staff made friendships with people outside of their department, and then moved across, so this might be possible.”