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What is Active Listening?

“Babe, I need to tell you about my day. I had the greatest day at work today. My colleague and I had a breakthrough moment with a client. Really really pleased!” I shared zealously.

“That’s great. I’m happy for you”, he replied.

“…And we had a 1 hour debriefing meeting, as it was such a crucial moment in this piece of work”, I continued.

“Hmm, that’s nice”, he added.

“I’d love to order in today to celebrate. It’s on me. What would you like to order?”

He closed the conversation with a simple, “anything you want, darling”.

At this point, I didn’t respond as I could feel myself becoming annoyed. He definitely appeared supportive, but the “that’s nice” imbued with levity and the “happy for you” felt a rather underwhelming response– disappointing even. He was definitely hearing me, but he was not listening.

Hearing vs. Listening

Ever thought of the difference between hearing and listening? They’re both related to the perception of sound, but there are some major differences. Let’s begin with defining these two terms. The online Merriam-Webstar Dictionary provides the following definitions:

1. Hearing verb 

the process, function, or power of perceiving sound specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli

e.g. She heard the noise coming from the garden.

2. Listening verb 

To pay attention to sound: to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration: to be alert to catch an expected sound

e.g. He listened with interest as they told him about their travels.

The key phrase that speaks to the difference between hearing and listening is that listening involves ‘thoughtful attention’. Listening is a step ahead from hearing, in which the sound is perceived, and a mindful effort is made to listen with full attention, understand what is being said, reflect and respond appropriately, and retain the information for later. 

Active listening is a communication tool that engages the speaker and listener in meaningful conversation. By being an active listener for someone, you are providing them with a safe and emotional space in which they have the opportunity to share their experiences, feelings, thought processes, plans, etc. and a chance for them to feel connected, validated, understood and appreciated by you.

Are you actively listening in your conversations? Have you been guilty of hearing but not listening? Below are some of the ways you can begin to build a practice of active listening.

8 Tips for active listening:

1. Pay attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention. This may mean stopping or pausing what you are doing to focus solely on the present conversation.

2. Put away distractions

As you begin the conversation physically put aside your phone, laptop, tv remote or anything else that may take away your attention. Take the additional step of putting your phone on silent or turning off any notifications on your electronic devices, as it can disrupt the flow of your conversation.

3. Be present

Be present with your mind and body. As you listen attentively, show the other person that you are listening. Face your body towards the speaker, stand/ sit with an alert posture and maintain eye contact. Notice the speaker’s mannerisms, expressions and non-verbal cues to better understand them.

4. Listen without judgment

Defer from making or sharing any judgments, as this can take away from the conversation. Judgment, communicated verbally or nonverbally– through facial expressions, for instance –can often lead the speaker feeling criticised or tap into their vulnerability; this may lead them to shut off or react aggressively. 

5. Practice patience

As tempting as it is to share your inputs as you listen, be patient. There may or may not be a space for you to respond– allow the speaker to navigate the conversation and provide the opportunity for you to respond. Remember, this is their space and it is important that you respect their process in the conversation.

6. Paraphrase & summarise

To acknowledge that you have listened, use different words to repeat what you have just heard. Allow yourself to take a few moments to summarise, highlighting what they have shared. Paraphrasing and summarising can help achieve greater clarity during the conversation.

7. Ask questions

Asking questions assists in gaining clarity, e.g. through the use of probing questions; asking questions can facilitate exploration and further enhance your understanding about the particular topic being discussed, e.g. through asking open-ended questions. Simple appropriate questions to request clarification such as “for how many days?” or “at what time?” may be helpful for you to build a clearer picture. 

8. Listen with your body

While paying attention to the verbal communication, be attuned to your body and the non-verbal cues too. Take a moment to reflect on how you feel in that moment and if things feel different. You may be feeling empathy and want to share this. You may have a surge of emotions in response to something spoken or unspoken, and you can provide feedback about this in a gentle manner.

Practice these techniques in conversations with your loved ones, and identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Notice if your conversations improve through practicing active listening and, if so, what has been helpful.

…And the next time you’re asked to listen up, make sure you’re all ears!