Active listening involves skills taught to and attitudes developed by
officers and counselors, but these elements work for everybody. It’s good
stuff -- I’ll go so far as to say that actively listening is THE key element
in talking down mentally ill and emotionally disturbed people. It’s also
good for keeping your wife happy and staying current with your kids’
activities. It makes you better at your job, a better husband or wife, and a
better parent and friend. There is no down side to being a good listener.
So why do so few people, even trained people, use this skill?
Ego. I am more important than you. What I have to say is more important than
what you have to say. “I am here to solve the problem, and you aren’t. So
shut up and let me solve the problem.” Or, “You’re going to yammer on about
your problems. Kid, you don’t know what problems are. Let me tell you …”
That’s natural. Someone close to you gets hurt, you feel sympathy. But only
when you get hurt do you feel pain. The words in your own head seem so much
more important than the words buzzing through the air.
You have to get over that.
Communication is all about information. If you ignore information because of
your ego, there is no communication You must listen to understand the
problem and find options. You need tools to be sure you understand. That’s
The Skills of Active Listening
The primary skill in active listening is to pay attention. The mind
works faster than the mouth. Commonly, when someone speaks to you, you jump
ahead to the end of the statement and start formulating your response. That
means you really only have listened to the first words. The first skill to
develop is really just a habit, the habit of listening with full attention
to everything the other person says. No jumping ahead, no thinking about
your own clever response.
It is okay to take a few seconds and reflect before responding. Most people
perceive it as a compliment, evidence that their words had impact.
There is a lot of information in even a simple statement. Hear the words,
but look at the body language and listen to the tone, as well. It is all
information, and information is communication.
You don’t need to be an expert on body language or reading
micro-expressions. Merely acknowledge what you see: “You look a little
tense. Does this subject bother you?” Observing and asking about emotions is
affirming, proof that you are paying attention and caring. It also is a
piece of the feedback skill.
Feedback, sometimes called reflecting or paraphrasing, is how you check your
perceptions. Communication is not 100 percent clear, accurate or complete.
If I say ‘rock,’ you may think of a boulder or a pebble, a piece of gravel
or a diamond … or music.
Feedback is the closest thing to a technique in active listening. Basically,
in your own words, you repeat what you have heard. If it is word for word,
it will sound stilted and gimmicky. People will recognize it as a technique
and feel they are being played.
Your perception, in your words. It’s easy, really:
“Oh my god did you really say …?”
“Wait, wait, wait. You’re telling me
Preston actually …”
“Let me get this straight. North on
Wilson Avenue, then left at the light …”
Feedback is not just affirming for the other person. It also gives a chance
to clarify, to explain, to go deeper … and it will point out if you missed
something. Again, like much of active listening, there is no down side.
Listening is intelligence gathering. Listening is the most important part,
but the second part is to get the other person talking. Usually, that’s
easy. Most people love to talk, especially about themselves. And they love
to be listened to, to be the center of attention.
Encouraging noises like, “Uh huh,” and “Go on,” help. More skill goes into
asking questions. A closed question invites a yes or no answer (it
can be a conversation killer):
“Did you see Carole last night?”
An open-ended question invites a story:
“What happened last night.”
You can tack an open-ended question
“You’re telling me the mechanic
tried to rip you off? What happened when you called him on it?”
As you gain greater skill and experience, you will notice more subtle
things. Such as when the eyes get tight for just a second as a particular a
subject comes up. Things the other person won’t say directly, or things they
talk too much about. It tells you about likes and dislikes, enthusiasm and
taboos. Eventually, you will be able to find signs of childhood trauma in
voice tones and hesitations, if you want to take this skill that far.
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