| 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Maybe somehow we can communicate.
Author: Tony Atherton
© Tony Atherton 2006 (For permission to reproduce this article please
write to Tony Atherton)