This 10 minute video looks at why active listening is so important – yet difficult. It provides seven tips to help you improve your active listening skills.
Hi I’m Kim Tasso. Today – as you can see from my ears – I’ll be talking about active listening. I’ll be sharing eight tips on how to be a more active listener.
But I wanted to start with a story. When I was young, I trained as a volunteer with an emergency helpline for those who were feeling sad, depressed or suicidal. Our job was simply to listen and befriend people – never to give advice or to judge. It was really hard. Sometimes we would be on the end of a phone for hours with the person not speaking. All we could do was to listen – even just to slight changes in breathing – and occasionally make a sound to show we were still listening. It was really, really hard to maintain attention on what the caller wasn’t saying for so long. And without saying anything. But listening like that could save lives. It was powerful.
More recently, I did completed some training in counselling – with a view to becoming a therapist. And guess what the most important tool is of a therapist? While all the psychology theories and techniques and counselling skills are important. The most important skill was – you guessed it – really, really actively listening.
So why is active listening so hard?
(SIGN) Our brain works at 500 words a minute – We listen at 150 words a minute – The difference is 350. So we have to concentrate on listening or our brains switch off and think about other things.
Research suggests that we remember between 25% and 50% of what we hear – This is Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. This shows we often only partially listen.
When we are listening to someone – there is a lot going on. Our brain subconsciously uses perception filters (based on our view of the world) – and are listening out for words to which it can connect. To prove or support our hypotheses. Our brains are likely to ignore – or filter out – information that doesn’t support our pre-conceptions.
As people speak, the words and emotions they express may triggers associations and ideas in our minds – so we start to pay attention to what we are thinking rather than what the person is saying. Know your red flag words. Guard against allowing yourself to drift off to think of other things rather than paying attention to the person who is speaking.
Also, people often say one thing with words and something else with their non-verbal communication (NVC) or body language. The words they use may not be congruent with the emotions they are expressing – so which do you pay attention to?
And also – as human interaction involves a two-way exchange – we know that we will be expected to reply so our brains are working hard working out what we might say when it is our turn to talk.
Why is active listening so important?
Listening to someone shows that you care about them, what they are saying and their opinions. It demonstrates interest and respect.
Often in my work in coaching and counselling people say that they are relieved to be really heard – sometimes for what feels to them to be the first time. And if you continue to listen – without judgement or interjection – people will continue to talk and tell you more. They will open up.
Listening enables you to develop empathy (watch a short video on emotional intelligence and empathy) with the person. If you listen really hard to what they say you will start to see things from their perspective.
So being good at active listening is vital for all communication. After empathy, listening will help you build rapport and for people to start to trust you. That’s why it is especially important in coaching and counselling.
It is also important if we are in a difficult situation – where there are disagreements or conflict. (Read a short article on managing difficult conversations). Often, people will not be ready to listen to you until they have expressed their views – and had their emotions validated – and to see that you are listening.
It is also a really important skill if we want to persuade people or if we want to sell. We have to really understand them – to develop empathy by listening – before we put across our point of view.
So how can we listen more actively?
There are lots of things we can do to improve our ability to listen actively.
Two points on silence – which is, in my view, most definitely golden.
The first thing to do is to remove distractions. And the likelihood of interruptions. The obvious one is your phone – pinging with alerts. Then there is ambient noise like distant traffic or the voices of people nearby. Then – as we work at home – there are things like barking dogs and ringing door bells.
Second, if you maintain silence the other person is likely to continue speaking. People feel uncomfortable in silence and are likely to start or continue speaking to fill the void.
Manage your Non-Verbal Communication (NVC)
While listening you may not be speaking but you are still communication – through your NVC – your facial expressions, your stance and your gestures.
Maintain eye contact – don’t sneakily look at your phone or watch or out of the window. Perhaps smile and nod to show you are listening and to encourage the person to continue speaking.
Adopt an open posture (unfold your arms and legs) – lean in a little to show interest.
And watch the NVC of the person speaking – even their micro-expressions.
If you have rapport with someone, you are likely to subconsciously mirror their NVC. And your brain will – through neural coupling – mirror their emotions.
Concentrate and be in the moment
Postpone thinking and worrying about everything else and really concentrate on listening to what the other person is saying AND how they are saying it.
Really be in the moment. Stop your brain from wandering off to other thoughts. Focus on the other person. Aim to learn something. Some talk of using the 3As – Attention, Attitude, Adjustment.
Parrot and repeat back
You’ll notice this is a red parrot. There are numerous ways to show you are listening – and also to check your understanding.
Parroting back – or repeating back – exactly what they say is one way. Although it takes a lot of time. Some people call this reflecting back
But sometimes it is really helpful for the other person to hear what they have said from someone else.
Whilst generally note-taking is good, try to avoid taking notes at the start of an interaction. This provides what therapists call “free attention”. Repetition and reflecting back helps us to remember what has been said.
A similar method is to paraphrase. This means repeating back just some of what the person has said – but using your own words.
And while we are on the paras – use Paralinguistics. These are aspects of spoken communication that do not involve words. These may add emphasis or shades of meaning to what people say. For example – “Aha” and “Mmm” and “Oh”.
Listen to all the points that the person says. Then try to summarise what they have said. Using your own words but perhaps picking up on one or two of the words that have been spoken.
This also enables you to check that you have understood properly. The person who was speaking can correct you if you misunderstood. Or they might explain further about something they think you misunderstood.
You can also emphasise particular points – by focusing. This helps you and the person who was speaking to prioritise their thoughts.
Over to you… I’ve been speaking for about seven minutes now – did you continue to listen carefully all of the time? Were you distracted and thinking about other things? Could you now repeat back or summarise the key points I spoke about? What helped you to remember things? Was it visual cues? Or was it the words I used? Or perhaps how I said things?
Thanks for watching and LISTENING
Links to related articles on active listening
Coaching skills – the importance of active listening (November 2014)
Coaching skills – The power of questions (May 2017)
Book launch: Essential soft skills for lawyers – some research findings (July 2020)
Book review: Mediation skills and strategies – A practical guide by Tony Whatling (October 2020)
How can I improve my active listening skills (March 2010)
12 thoughts on delegation, coaching and team management (January 2020)
Animal magic of buy-in and stakeholder engagement – Video (September 2020)
Fabulous first meetings – 16 selling insights (March 2017)