One of the most valuable and important communication skills we can master is listening. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason! Listening does not just mean to hear what other people are saying but rather it involves the ability to hear, understand, acknowledge, and provide appropriate feedback. Oftentimes we think we are listening to what someone is saying but instead we are really thinking about what our response is going to be, which causes us to misunderstand what is being communicated and can lead to conflict. However, active listening does not come naturally to most of us and requires conscious effort and practice but can result in many benefits if we are able to develop and use this skill. Here are some steps you can take to develop and practice the art of active listening:
1. Focus your attention on the speaker. This means that you need to block out all other distractions so that all of your attention is directed at the person who is talking to you. Try to minimize any thoughts, side conversations, or other stimuli in the environment so that your focus and attention are in one place. This step involves non-verbal communication such as direct eye contact.
2. Exhibit signs that you are listening. This means that you are showing the person you are talking to that you can hear what they are saying by nodding your head, maintaining an open body posture, smiling or demonstrating other facial cues, and expressing verbal cues such as “I see” or “uh-huh”. This sends the message to the person speaking that you are present and involved in the conversation.
3. Reflect back what you hear. We can let people know that we heard and understood what they are saying without having to agree/disagree or give our opinion by simply repeating or paraphrasing to them what we heard them say. Using the phrase “what I heard you say” or “you are saying…” promotes acknowledgment and a sense of understanding. We can also ask clarifying questions if we did not understand or need statements to be repeated. The goal of this step is to receive confirmation from the person speaking that your reflection is accurate. This step does not involve your response to what was said.
4. Allow the speaker to complete his/her thoughts and do not interrupt. It can be extremely frustrating to try to talk to someone who cuts you off or interjects his/her own thoughts when you are in the middle of expressing yourself. Before you express your opinion about what was just communicated to you, allow the person to fully complete what he/she said and acknowledge it by following the previous steps so that when it is your time to talk, it will promote the other person to reciprocate by actively listening to you.
5. Use assertiveness skills to respond. Once there is mutual agreement that you have accurately heard and understand what was communicated to you, it is time for you to appropriately provide your thoughts and feelings by being open, respectful, and honest through the use of “I” statements. This is where the saying “treat others the way you want to be treated” comes into play.
Try practicing these skills in your interactions with your partner, spouse, friends, family members, and work relationships. If done correctly, you will find that being an effective listener makes conversations with other people more enjoyable by minimizing misunderstandings and conflict and promoting empathy, understanding, and openness.