Active listening is a person’s willingness and ability to hear and understand. Many of us intuitively know what active listening looks, sounds, and feels like. However, we may not know what to do to be successful at it.

By learning the skills and behaviours of active listening, leaders can become more effective listeners and, over time, improve their ability to lead. Active listening does not necessarily mean long sessions spent listening to grievances, personal or otherwise. It is simply a way of approaching those problems which arise out of the usual day-to-day events of any job.

To be effective, active listening must be firmly grounded in the basic attitudes of the user. Until we can demonstrate a spirit which genuinely respects the potential worth of the individual, which considers his sights and trusts his capacity for self-direction, we cannot begin to be effective listeners.  Listening is a complex process that involves far more than our ears. To listen well, we rely on our ears, minds, and hearts.  Listening has psychological and cognitive dimensions that mere hearing, or physically receiving messages does not. The multifaceted aspects of listening are reflected in the Chinese character in Figure 1, which includes the symbols for the eyes, ears and heart. We can define listening as an active, complex process that consists of being mindful; hearing, selecting and organising information; interpreting communication; responding and remembering. Listening then is more than hearing. It also requires us to interpret, remember and respond to what others communicate.

Figure 1. The Chinese Character for the word “Listening”

What We Achieve by Listening

Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.

When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces the threat of having one’s ideas criticised, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is more likely to feel that his contributions are worthwhile.

Not the least important result of listening is the change that takes place within the listener himself. Besides providing more information than any other activity, listening builds deep, positive relationships and tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener. Listening is a growth experience.

These, then, are some of the worthwhile results we can expect from active listening. But how do we go about this kind of listening? How do we become active listeners?

How to Listen

Active listening aims to bring about changes in people. To achieve this end, it relies upon definite techniques—things to do and things to avoid doing. Before discussing these techniques, however, we should first understand why they are effective. To do so, we must understand how the individual personality develops.

The Growth of the Individual

Through all of our lives, from early childhood on, we have learned to think of ourselves in certain very definite ways. We have built up pictures of ourselves. Sometimes these self-pictures are pretty realistic, but at other times they are not. For example, an over-age, overweight lady may fancy herself a youthful, ravishing siren, or an awkward teen-ager regard himself as a star athlete.

All of us have experiences which fit the way we need to think about ourselves. These we accept. But it is much harder to accept experiences which don’t fit. And sometimes if it is very important for us to hang on to this self-picture, we don’t accept or admit these experiences at all. These self-pictures are not necessarily attractive. A man,
for example, may regard himself as incompetent and worthless. He may feel that he is doing his job poorly in spite of favourable appraisals by the company. As long as he has these feelings about himself, he must deny any experiences which would seem not to fit this self-picture—in this case any that might indicate to him that he is competent. It is so necessary for him to maintain this self-picture that he is threatened by anything which would tend to change it. Thus, when the company raises his salary, it may seem to him only additional proof that he is a fraud. He must hold onto this self-picture, because, bad or good, it’s the only thing he has by which he can identify himself. This is why direct attempts to change this individual or change his self-picture are particularly threatening. He is forced to defend himself or to completely deny the experience. This denial of experience and defence of the self-picture tend to bring on rigidity of behaviour and create difficulties in personal adjustment. The active listening approach, on the other hand, does not present a threat to the individual’s self-picture. He does not have to defend it. He is able to explore it, see it for what it is, and make his own decision about how realistic it is. And he is then in a position to change. If I want to help a man reduce his defensiveness and become more adaptive, I must try to remove the threat of myself as his potential changer. As long as the atmosphere is threatening, there can be no effective communication. So I must create a climate which is neither critical, evaluative, nor moralising. It must be an atmosphere of equality and freedom, permissiveness and understanding, acceptance and warmth. It is in this climate and this climate only that the individual feels safe enough to incorporate new experiences and new values into his concept of himself. Let’s see how active listening helps to create this climate.

What to Avoid

When we encounter a person with a problem our usual response is to try to change his way of looking at things—to get him to see his situation the way we see it or would like him to see it. We plead, reason, scold, encourage, insult, prod—anything to bring about a change in the desired direction, that is, in the direction we want him to travel. What we seldom realise, however, is that, under these circumstances, we are usually responding to our own needs to see the world in certain ways. It is always difficult for us to tolerate and understand actions which are different from the ways in which we believe we should act. If, however, we can free ourselves from the need to influence and direct others in our own paths, we enable ourselves to listen with understanding and thereby employ the most potent available agent of change.

One problem the listener faces is that of responding to demands for decisions, judgments, and evaluations. He is constantly called upon to agree or disagree with someone or something. Yet, as he well knows, the question or challenge frequently is a masked expression of feelings or needs which the speaker is far more anxious to communicate than he is to have the surface questions answered. Because he cannot speak these feelings openly, the speaker must disguise them to himself and to others in an acceptable form. Passing judgment, whether critical or favourable, makes free expression difficult.

Similarly, advice and information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression and the development of a creative relationship. Moreover, advice is seldom taken, and information hardly ever utilised. The eager young trainee probably will not become patient just because he is advised that “the road to success in business is a long, difficult one, and you must be patient.” And it is no more helpful for him to learn that “only one out of a hundred trainees reaches a top management position.” Interestingly, it is a difficult lesson to learn that positive evaluations are sometimes as blocking as negative ones. It is almost as destructive to the freedom of a relationship to tell a person that he is good or capable or right, as to tell him otherwise. To evaluate him positively may make it more difficult for him to tell of the faults that distress him or the ways in which he believes he is not competent.

Encouragement also may be seen as an attempt to motivate the speaker in certain directions or hold him off, rather than as support. “I’m sure everything will work out O.K.” is not a helpful response to the person who is deeply discouraged about a problem. In other words, most of the techniques and devices common to human relationships are found to be of little use in establishing the type of relationship we are seeking here.

What to Do

Just what does active listening entail, then? Basically, it requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us.

More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view. To listen actively, then, means that there are several things we must do.

Listen for Total Meaning

Any message a person tries to get across usually has two components: the content of the message and the feeling or attitude underlying the content. Both are important; both give the message meaning. It is this total meaning of the message that we try to understand. For example, a salesperson comes to his sales manager and says, “I’ve finished that revised forecast.” This message has obvious content and perhaps calls upon the Sales Manager for another work assignment.

Suppose, on the other hand, that he says, “Well, I’m finally finished with that damned forecast for you.” The content is the same, but the total meaning of the message has changed—and changed in an important way for both the Sales Manager and the salesperson. Here sensitive listening can facilitate the relationship. Suppose the Sales Manager were to respond by simply giving another work assignment. Would the employee feel that he had gotten his total message across? Would he feel free to talk to his Sales Manager? Will he feel better about his job, more anxious to do good work on the next assignment?

Now, on the other hand, suppose the Sales Manager were to respond with, “Glad to have it over with, huh?” or “Had a pretty rough time of it?” or “I guess you don’t feel like doing anything like that again,” or anything else that tells the salesperson that he heard and understands. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the next work assignment need be changed or that she must spend an hour listening to the worker complain about the setup problems he encountered. She may do a number of things differently in the light of the new information she has from the worker—but not necessarily. It’s just that extra sensitivity on the part of the manager which can transform an average working climate into a good one.

Respond to Feelings

In some instances, the content is far less important than the feeling which underlies it. To catch the full flavour or meaning of the message, one must respond particularly to the feeling component. If, for instance, our machinist had said, “I’d like to melt this lathe down and make paper clips out of it,” responding to content would be obviously absurd. But to respond to his disgust or anger in trying to work with his lathe recognises the meaning of this message. There are various shadings of these components in the meaning of any message. Each time, the listener must try to remain sensitive to the total meaning the message has to the speaker. What is he trying to tell me? What does this mean to him? How does he see this situation?

Note All Cues

Not all communication is verbal. The speaker’s words alone don’t tell us everything he is communicating. And hence, truly sensitive listening requires that we become aware of several kinds of communication besides verbal. The way in which a speaker hesitates in his speech can tell us much about his feelings. So, too, can the inflection of his voice.

He may stress certain points loudly and clearly and may mumble others. We should also note such things as the person’s facial expressions, body posture, hand movements, eye movements, and breathing. All of these help to convey his total message.

What We Communicate by Listening

Figure 2. Kanji Symbols for Respect

The first reaction of most people when they consider listening as a possible method for dealing with human beings is that listening cannot be sufficient in itself. Because it is passive, they feel, listening does not communicate anything to the speaker. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. By consistently listening to a speaker, you are conveying the idea that: “I’m interested in you as a person, and I think that what you feel is important. I respect your thoughts, and even if I don’t agree with them, I know that they are valid for you. I feel sure that you have a contribution to make. I’m not trying to change you or evaluate you. I just want to understand you. I think you’re worth listening to, and I want you to know that I’m the kind of a person you can talk to.” The subtle but more important aspect of this is that it is the demonstration of the message that works.

While it is most difficult to convince someone that you respect them by telling them, you are much more likely to get the message across by behaving in a respectful manner—through actually having and demonstrating respect for this person. Listening does this most effectively.

Like other behaviour, listening behaviour is contagious. This has implications for all communication problems, whether between two people or within a large organisation. To ensure good communication between associates up and down the line, one must first take the responsibility for setting a pattern of listening. Just as one learns that anger is usually met with anger, dispute with dispute, and dishonesty with dishonesty, one can learn that listening can be met with listening. Every person who feels responsibility in a situation can set the tone of the interaction, and the important lesson in this is that any behaviour exhibited by one person will eventually be responded to with similar behaviour in the other person.

It is far more difficult to stimulate constructive behaviour in another person but far more beneficial. Listening is one of these constructive behaviours, but if one’s attitude is to “wait out” the speaker rather than really listen to him, it will fail. The one who consistently listens with understanding, however, is the one who eventually is most likely to be listened to. If you really want to be heard and understood by another, you can develop him as a potential listener, ready for new ideas, provided you can first develop yourself in these ways and sincerely listen with understanding and respect.

Because understanding another person is actually far more difficult than it at first seems, it is important to test constantly your ability to see the world in the way the speaker sees it. You can do this by reflecting in your own words what the speaker seems to mean by his words and actions. His response to this will tell you whether or not he feels understood. A good rule of thumb is to assume that you never really understand until you can communicate this understanding to the others satisfaction.

The restatement must be accurate enough to satisfy the speaker before the listener can be allowed to speak for yourself.

Problems in Active Listening

Problems in Active Listening

Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It demands practice. Perhaps more important, it may require changes in our own basic attitudes. These changes come slowly and sometimes with considerable difficulty. Let us look at some of the major problems in active listening and what can be done to overcome them.

To be effective at all in active listening, one must have a sincere interest in the speaker. We all live in glass houses as far as our attitudes are concerned. They always show through. And if we are only making a pretence of interest in the speaker. He will quickly pick this up, either consciously or unconsciously. And once he does, he will no longer express himself freely. Active listening carries a strong element of personal risk. If we manage to accomplish what we are describing here—to sense deeply the feeling of another person, to understand the meaning his experiences have for him, to see the world as he sees it—we risk being changed ourselves…To get the meaning which life has for him—we risk coming to see the world as he sees it. It is threatening to give up, even momentarily, what we believe and start thinking in someone else’s terms. It takes a great deal of inner security and courage to be able to risk one’s self in understanding another.

We are so accustomed to viewing ourselves in certain ways—to seeing and hearing only what we want to see and hear—that it is extremely difficult for a person to free himself from his needs to see things these ways. To do this may sometimes be unpleasant, but it is far more difficult than unpleasant. Developing an attitude of sincere interest in the speaker is thus no easy task. It can be developed only by being willing to risk seeing the world from the speaker’s point of view. If we have a number of such experiences, however, they will shape an attitude which will allow us to be truly genuine in our interest in the speaker.

How can we help-

On the Table Consulting  creates and implements a wide variety of communication and management consulting services, including organisational process development, executive and leadership development, and conflict resolution workshops.

On the Table Consulting offers mediation to facilitate conversations involving personal and workplace conflicts.

On the Table Consulting assists people and teams to have conversations. Conversations to resolve conflict impartially, objectively and in a timely manner.