The Art of Active Listening

There is an old German proverb that says “No man has learned to speak well until he has first learned to hold his tongue.” But many of us are so used to speaking with others throughout the course of a day, and so eager to get our opinions heard, that we tend to forget that there is an art, and a vitally important one at that, in active and constructive listening. Active listening is a skill that, if we use it wisely, can give us a distinct advantage at meetings, interviews, in conversation, and indeed any place where we come into contact with others. When we consider this fact seriously then it will become patently clear to anyone involved in the business of achieving anything worthwhile, that active listening is a skill well worth possessing.
Failing to listen carefully will significantly increase the chances of us acting on distorted or even false information which can result in a costly waste of energy, time, and money. A therapist or doctor, for example, would not last long in practice if you spotted him or her frequently glancing at their watch, or looking vaguely out of the window – they would soon be looking at an empty waiting room, wondering where all their clients had gone. People in all walks of life like to be listened to, it’s only natural, and they feel complimented by your attention, with the result that they will feel valued and appreciated – they grow in stature, and so do you. So, how do you go about showing people that you are giving them 100 percent of your attention - that you understand and truly care about what they are telling you, and that what they are saying is important to you. Here are a few suggestions to point you in the right direction.

(1) Focus on the speaker, making slight gestures such as a nod or a shake of the head. This kind of subtle body language pays them the compliment that they have your full attention, that you want to hear what they say, and are actively seeking to broaden your knowledge. Like actors on a stage, the quality of their performance will often be determined by the quality of feedback they are getting from the audience.

(2) Maintain good eye contact, although this must be within the bounds of decency, as it varies greatly with different cultures and areas. An unbroken stare could even come across as menacing, while in some countries too much or prolonged eye contact is considered offensive.

(3) Ask carefully considered questions to indicate to the speaker that you are listening, and to help them to go on talking. Such basic questions such as “What is your opinion on this?” or “What do you think I should do?” could benefit both of you enormously. But don’t just go through the motions merely in an attempt to impress and ingratiate yourself with the speaker- listen carefully for you may learn a great deal from what is being said, and could well be to your advantage.

(4) Note the speaker’s choice of language, the clarity, speed, and volume of his voice. By pacing them, and by adopting the same patterns, although not in an exaggerated style so that you appear to be mocking them, you will be putting them at their ease and getting them to open up. Look carefully at their body language also, their mannerisms and the way they stand, as this may give you more clues as to what their message is.

(5) When talking with someone, or listening to a speaker, there are always going to be pauses of varying length. However, be comfortable with any pauses or moments of silence that may occur, it could just be that the speaker is getting his breath, or possibly considering what he intends to say next, so do not feel obliged to leap in with a remark or observation of your own.

(6) While listening to someone giving a speech or presentation, or during a conversation, indicate your respect by suspending all judgement of the speaker, or the message they are trying to convey until you are given the chance to say your piece. Trying to shout down or insult the speaker will alienate those around, and destroy any chance of your credibility. By keeping silent, and keeping your opinions to yourself until you have your chance to speak, will make for far better communication for both speaker and listener.

Remember that active listening means being involved in the whole process, not merely assuming a passive role. However, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much attention we pay, there is always a certain amount of loss of understanding between the speaker and the listener. But by developing the skills of active listening into a fine art, this can be reduced to an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, there are going to be times when the speaker will go on too long. They may even bore you to tears. But be patient, for your reward will be that you will be known as ‘a most interesting person, and great conversationalist.’

Finally, remember that to be able to listen well is a most valuable asset, a necessary tool when you are involved in daily communications with others. And remember too, that you can play your part in all of this by being aware of your own body language, such as fiddling with buttons or jewellery, making unnecessary comments to others, or sprawling in a nonchalant manner across a seat – this is distracting and disrespectful to all concerned, and you are never going to learn anything useful, or benefit from what is being said.

Listening, but really listening, and letting the speaker know that you are giving them your full attention, will bring customers hammering at your door, it will make influential people want you as a friend, and it can make for a far more contented and happy home life.

Once you have achieved all that, then you will know that you have really succeeded.

Author's Bio: 

Roy Burton MASC (NLP). Roy was born in Tottenham, north London. When he was 18 years old he enlisted and spent several years with the armed forces. Following his release, he worked for various companies, spending many years in the public library system. He has travelled widely throughout Europe and the United Kingdom, and is now based on the Isle of Wight. Roy has long been a student and advocate of self-development and has contributed many articles on the subject to various magazines and websites. He has long believed that anyone who has a well defined goal can, with determination and dedicated action, achieve the life of their dreams.