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Good listening is hard work! Very often when we listen to someone we only half pay attention; talking is much more fun than listening so we start thinking about what we will say when it’s our turn. What we want is a conversation where we put in at least half of what is said, if not more. We are not looking for hard work.

The phrase active listening has crept into management jargon. It is a good phrase though because good listening is not the passive action it is sometimes thought to be. Good listening requires active participation by the listener.

Active listening requires heavy concentration; you need to think, question and check your understanding. Passive listening, on the other hand, can get close to nodding off and may be no more than getting ready with what I will say when I get the chance. At worst it’s just an interlude between what we said last and what we say next.

It has been suggested that we can listen at between 600 and 800 words per minute – but we only speak at about 100 to 175 words per minute. It’s as if our brain has spare capacity and so we drift into thinking about other things and end up not listening properly. The cure is to use this apparent spare capacity to really concentrate on what we are being told. Although hard work, this is what is meant by active or empathic listening. It is a skill that we can all learn.

Consider this, perhaps the biggest challenge to our ability to listen well to another person is our natural in-built desire to interrupt and put forward our own point of view. Once we overcome that hurdle, and see our role as to understand them deeply, then we can really start to listen.

Is this true? Picture this scene; someone starts telling someone else about a problem they are having, say back pain. Within seconds the ‘listener’ is telling the ‘speaker’ about their own experience of back pain or someone else's. We might say, ‘Well, that’s conversation!’ Of course it is, but it is a conversation where we are at least as concerned (possibly more concerned) about speaking compared to listening – and that is not communication at a deep level. The question is, do you want a casual chat or do you really want to understand the other person?

Characteristics of Active Listening

Possibly the main characteristic of active listening is your mental approach – a wish to direct your attention at the other person so as to understand their experience. Telling them about your own experiences is very much of secondary importance and may be of no importance whatsoever.

With this in mind, as an active listener, I will put aside my own perspectives and feelings so as to try to see things as you see them. Whether or not I agree with you is not an issue here. I will not interrupt to defend my own position whilst I am listening, for then I have stopped listening. I can make my defence later if necessary because this is not a competition and I am not trying to ‘win’.

Techniques of Active Listening

So what are the techniques we can polish to help us become better listeners? These techniques are not new to you, you already use them but maybe they can be improved. Remember that this is primarily about an act of will on your part to really concentrate on listening – but there are techniques that help that process along. These include the following.

Show that you are paying attention, it will encourage them to continue. Give verbal and non-verbal encouragers such as nods and shakes of the head and good eye contact. Make encouraging noises such as, “Aha,” “Mmm,” and use short words or phrases such as, “Yes,” “No,” Really,” “And then what?” Your purpose is to encourage them to keep talking, not to get in on the act yourself.

Check that your understanding is correct. To do this you will need, occasionally, to summarise what they have been saying, preferably by paraphrasing in your own words. Pull together what they have told you but do not just repeat their words back to them. That merely shows that you have heard and remembered, paraphrasing shows that you also understand.

If there is something that you want to learn more about then probe with some searching intelligent questions. Do this very gently if you are touching on sensitive matters. Show that you are interested and want to learn more.

Check occasionally that your understanding is correct and – that your interpretation of what you have heard is correct. You may well be reading between the lines at this stage, going beyond what they have actually said, and you need to check that your deductions are right. “Are you saying that you were very disappointed?” They have not actually said it, but you think it may be true and so you try to take them deeper.

As always, when you speak it is not to take over the conversation – you still see your role as to listen. Your words are merely to encourage them to open up more – until they reach the point that they feel enough is enough.

Silence is also a wonderful tool to encourage the other person to keep talking. As we hinted earlier, a moment’s silence usually leads to us putting in our pennyworth. In active listening it is a tool to allow them to have the time to reflect and to start anew. Let the silence do its work! It does not last as long as it feels.

As in any spell of active listening you will get tired so limit the duration; twenty to thirty minutes will be very tiring. And do respect confidences! Quite often, when someone really gets the chance to off load to someone who is so obviously listening and not interrupting to make their own points, they may tell you more than they would normally do. They may even surprise themselves at what they tell you. Do not betray that confidence.

Active listening is not likely to become your normal way of holding a general conversation, but it is a wonderful tool for when you really need to understand what someone has done and why they did it, or how they really feel about something.

Practise the skills as opportunities arise. At work it can be used in meetings, interviews, appraisals, negotiations, and whenever you want a deep understanding. Try it for five minutes when you get home tonight. Give someone a good listening to!


I speak to you because I know my needs
I speak with hesitation because I know not yours.
My words come from my own life’s experience
Your understanding comes from yours.
Because of this, what I say and what you hear may not be the same.
So if you listen carefully, not only with your ears but also with your heart
Maybe somehow we can communicate.


Author: Tony Atherton
Tony Atherton 2006 (For permission to reproduce this article please write to Tony Atherton)



About the author:
Tony Atherton is a freelance trainer and writer with over 25 years' experience. He runs in-company courses in Technical Report Writing, Business Report Writing and Minute Taking. For course details click home.



Enquiries: E-mail direct to Tony Atherton or call 07976-390960

Based in Hampshire, England

Last updated 24 July 2014