Active Listening: What Is It And How To Improve It

“Active listening is a communication technique that is used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said.”

Thanks, Wikipedia. But that’s not all.

First of all, let’s start by saying what active listening is not
Active listening isn’t just putting your fishy face on and repeating what the counterpart is saying. That’s called reflective listening, and by the way, it doesn’t necessarily entail that your attention is alive during the encounter.

Active listening isn’t waiting for the other person to finish just to spit out the answer that you were preparing the whole time you were supposed to actually listen. 

And active listening isn’t trying to prescribe solutions to the counterpart’s challenges and obstacles, at least not without fully understanding the whole context and spending at least some time in an empathetic state with him/her first.

Oh, and by the way, using it just in “counseling, training, and conflict resolution” looks like a shortcut.

I mean, I don’t want to sound like a preacher here, but attentive listening should be a way of living rather than a technique used only when there’s something valuable on the line. Ok, I’m done.

Active listening is the ability to zone in on the conversation you’re having and reaching a fully empathetic state with whomever is in front of you. 
It means fine-tuning your ears, mind and heart to what’s being communicated to you. 
No smartphone, no distractions, no glazing over the nice lady that’s crossing the street while simultaneously pretending you’re there. None of that. 

Too utopistic maybe?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across absent-minded individuals. The scenario was always the same.
Right in the middle of a conversation, both in one-on-one setting or group chatter, someone opens up their iPhone. From there, the talk lasts about 30 more seconds, a period after which they totally diverge from the main topic that was being discussed initially (you’ll notice it when they start sticking the pronoun “I” way too many times into their sentences). 
It is a total turn-off.

And that’s usually the point where I wish I could’ve stayed at home playing checkers with my grandmother.

The ability to properly listen is a skill that, in this extremely fast-paced world, very few learn to master.

But that doesn’t mean it’s difficult.

On the contrary, it’s pretty achievable, and the steps below will certainly speed up the whole process:

  1. Make eye-contact.
    Eye-contact is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when talking to someone. Looking in the other person’s eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re present and active within the conversation, but it is nonetheless the first step towards reaching full empathy. It ensures the counterpart that he/she is being respected and listened to.
  2. Ask questions.
    Not only do you need to ask questions when you don’t understand something, it is just as important, every now and then, to check if the two (or more) of you are on the same page. This is achieved through asking paraphrasing questions: they allow you to both make sure you grasped the concept and improve your self-awareness within the conversation. Even more than that, those questions get the other person to see things from a different standpoint, therefore furthering more communication.
  3. Pay attention to non-verbal cues.
    Did you know that non-verbal communication constitutes about two-thirds of all communications? 

    Based on this, it’s pretty safe to say that body language is important and therefore deserving of attention. 
    When we are relaxed, our physical gestures and our vocal messages match, leaving our interlocutor with no room for doubt and second-guessing. On the contrary, when we’re tense or stressed, our physical signals might send a different message which it the total opposite of the one that we’re vocally trying to address. Remember about that when listening, and, if the situations permits, clarify the other’s emotional state.
  4. Be empathetic.
    Tap into the feelings behind the words. 
    Don’t just stop at what people are saying, ask yourself why they’re saying it. Place your ego aside and dive into what provoked a particular response. 
    By putting yourself in their shoes and see the whole situation from their eyes, you allow them to express their true feelings. Besides the fact that giving the gift of undivided attention and compassion to someone is one of the most generous things you could ever do as a human being, it also gets you to amplify your own perspective on different subjects. 

    Easier said than done, I know. 
    Leaving the comfort zone of “I’m preparing my answer” for the uncertainty of responding as you go is not easy to do and might seem intimidating at first. But with a lot of practice and patience, it’ll eventually become second nature and it will enable the conversation to proceed as smoothly as silk.
  5. Defer Judgment and be open-minded.
    Let the other person finish before uttering anything. 
    It’s called active listening for a reason, after all. There’s literally no point in interrupting the speaker; it breaks the momentum, it limits your understanding of the message, and it is ultimately a waste of time. 
    The whole practice of active listening, as we previously outlined, revolves around respectfulness. You listen because you value other’s opinions, and you want to learn more about them; hence, it would be impossible to respect your peer while simlutaneously opening your mouth. Be smart.

    You also want to be (and look) as open-minded as you can, which means being ready to acknowledge worldviews that might differ from your own. 
    Due to different life experiences, not everyone has the same belief system; everyone grew up in a different way, meshed with different cultures and came across different people: the sooner you grasp that reality, the better your conversations will be.

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