Book review: The Art of Active Listening
Listening. Listening. Listening. I know how important it is, but I also know how hard I sometimes find to truly listen. I guess I’m not unique when I miss half of what the other person is saying because I’m so preoccupied with what I’m going to say in response. This realisation prompted me to read The Art of Active Listening by Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker. These are my key takeaways from reading this book:
What is active listening?
The difference between “active listening” and “normal listening” was my first learning from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The authors of the book, Josh Gibson and Fynn Walker, make it pretty clear from the outset that there are only two communication states: actively listening, and not really listening. Gibson and Walker then go on to explain that active listening is the art of listening for meaning; active listening requires you to understand, interpret, and evaluate what you’re being told.
With active listening, your attention should be on the speaker. This means that whenever you feel an inner urge to say something, to respond, try to stop this urge and instead concentrate on what’s being said. Just to give you a personal example from how this urge often manifests itself when I listen:
Speaker: “So we decided to do X, Y, Z.This felt like the best approach, because …
Me — thinking: “Why did they decide to do XYZ, that doesn’t make sense!” — Thus completely ignoring the “because” part of the speaker’s statement
It’s easy to see from this example how people like me run the risk of missing critical bits of a conversation, purely because the focus is on the response instead of on listening actively.
Importance of active listening
In the book, Gibson and Walker explain why it’s so important to actively listen:
- Active listening encourages people to open up.
- Active listening reduce the chance of misunderstandings.
- Active listening helps to resolve problems and conflicts.
- Active listening builds trust.
To me, active listening is the key to empathy and relationship building. I liked Gibson and Walker’s simple breakdown of human communication: “In simple terms, speaking is one person reaching out, and listening is another person accepting and taking hold. Together, they form communication, and this is the basis of all human relationships.”
7 common barriers to active listening
Learning about the seven common barriers to active listening was my biggest takeaway from “The Art of Active Listening”. In the book, Gibson and Walker point out the typical barriers that most of us deal with when listening:
- Your ignorance and delusion — The first barrier to active listening is simply not realising that listening isn’t taking place. Gibson and Walker make the point that most of us can get through life perfectly well without developing our listening skills, deluding ourselves that listening just involves allowing another person to speak in our presence.
- Your reluctance — When you actively listen to another person, it may be that you become involved in their situation in some way. There might be instances where you’re reluctant to get involved and as a result fail to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.
- Your bias and prejudice — Your personal interpretation of what you’re hearing may cause you to respond negatively to the speaker. You either assume that you know the situation because you’ve had a similar experience in the past or you allow your preconceptions to colour the way you respond.
- Your lack of interest — You may simply not be interested in what the speaker is saying. We all know that this can happen when you feel the conversation topic is uninspiring.
- Your opinion of the speaker — Your opinion of the speaker, as a person, may influence the extent to which you’re happy to pay attention and give your time to the speaker. Often when you don’t like the speaker, this is likely to affect your desire to listen to the speaker. I’ve also noticed how in certain places, the status of the speaker has a big influence on whether he or she is being listened to. In these places, the CEO tends to be listened to automatically, whereas ‘people of lower rank’ might struggle to be heard.
- Your own feelings — Your ability to listen to other people can easily be affected by how you’re feeling at a particular moment. For example, if you’re in a good mood you might feel more inclined to listen actively and offer your best advice based on what you’ve just heard. In contrast, if you’re in a bad mood, the last thing you might want to do is listen to someone else’s thoughts and offer advice in response.
- The wrong time and wrong place — These are the physical factors that influence whether you’re willing or able to actively listen to what you’re being told. For example, having a heart to heart conversation in a busy coffeeshop is unlikely to positively affect your ability to listen actively.
4 components of active listening
With the four components of active listening that are pointed out in the book, the onus is on the listener to develop these components:
- Acceptance — Acceptance is about respecting the person that you’re talking to; irrespective of what the other person has to say but purely because you’re talking to another human being. Accepting means trying to avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying, at least initially. I’ve often made this mistake; being too keen to express my views and thus encouraging the speaker to take a very defensive stance in the conversation.
- Honesty — Honesty comes down to being open about your reactions to what you’ve heard. Similar to the acceptance component, honest reactions given too soon can easily stifle further explanation on the part of the speaker.
- Empathy — Empathy is about your ability to understand the speaker’s situation on an emotional level, based on your own view. Basing your understanding on your own view instead of on a sense of what should be felt, creates empathy instead of sympathy. Empathy can also be defined as your desire to feel the speaker’s emotions, regardless of your own experience.
- Specifics — Specifics refers to the need to deal in details rather than generalities. The point here is that for communication to be worthwhile, you should ask the speaker to be more specific, encouraging the speaker to open up more or “own” the problem that they’re trying to raise.
Tips to improve your active listening skills
The book provides some useful pointers on how you can best improve your active listening skills, explaining the essence of each tip outlined here:
- Minimise external distractions
- Face the speaker
- Maintain eye contact
- Focus on the speaker
- Be open-minded
- Be sincerely interested
- Have sympathy, feel empathy
- Assess the emotion, not just the words
- Respond appropriately
- Minimise internal distractions
- Avoid “me” stories
- Don’t be scared of silence
- Take notes
- Practice emotional intelligence
- Check your understanding
The main principles of reflective listening
Once you’ve listened actively, “reflective listening” is what comes next. Reflective listening is concerned with how you process what you’ve heard. The four components of active listening — acceptance, honesty, empathy and specifics — all work towards creating reflective responses in the listener. The main principles of active listening are:
- Listen more than you talk.
- Deal with personal specifics, not impersonal generalities.
- Decipher the feelings behind the words, to create a better understanding of the issues.
- Restate and clarify what you have heard.
- Understand the speaker’s point of view and avoid responding from your own viewpoint.
- Respond with acceptance and empathy, not coldly or with fake concern.
Main learning point: Understanding more about the common barriers to active listening — and how to best overcome these — was my biggest takeaway from reading “The Art of Active Listening”. The book does a great job at offering practical tips on how to listen actively and how to better process the things you’ve heard.
Related links for further learning: