Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding.
When interacting, people often are not listening attentively. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next (the latter case is particularly true in conflict situations or disagreements). Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others, focusing attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference, suspending judgment and avoiding other internal mental activities are important to fully attend to the speaker.
It is important for a listener to observe the speaker's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. Having heard, the listener may then paraphrase the speaker’s words. It is important to note that the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker—simply stating what was said. In emotionally charged communications, the listener may listen for feelings. Thus, rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener might describe the underlying emotion (“You seem to feel angry,” or “You seem to feel frustrated, is that because…?”).
Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. This has the effect of denying the validity of the other person’s position. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. This increases the possibility of collaborating and resolving the conflict.
In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the term "active listening", states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. ... Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task..."
A four step process (termed "Nonviolent Communication" or "NVC")—conceived by Marshall Rosenberg—can help facilitate active listening. "When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed [and requested] rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart." Rosenberg further clarifies the intricacy of perception and adaptiveness of what he calls "deep listening" by saying; "While I conveniently refer to NVC as a “process” or “language,” it is possible to express all four pieces of the model without uttering a single word. The essence of NVC is to be found in our consciousness of these four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged."
Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring, medical workers talking to patients, HIV counseling, helping suicidal persons, management, counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
A listener can use several degrees of active listening, each resulting in a different quality of communication. The Active Listening Chart below shows the three main degrees of listening: Repeating, Paraphrasing and Reflecting.
The benefits of active listening include getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improving cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Active listening can be lifted by the Active Listening Observation Scale.
Barriers to Active Listening
All elements of communication, including listening, may be affected by barriers that can impede the flow of conversation. Such barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span.
Listening barriers may be psychological (e.g. emotions) or physical (e.g. noise and visual distraction). Cultural differences including speakers' accents, vocabulary, and misunderstandings due to cultural assumptions often obstruct the listening process.
Frequently, the listener's personal interpretations, attitudes, biases, and prejudices lead to ineffective communication.
Overcoming Listening Barriers
To use the active listening technique to improve interpersonal communication, one puts personal emotions aside during the conversation, asks questions and paraphrases back to the speaker to clarify understanding, and one also tries to overcome all types of environment distractions. Furthermore, the listener considers the speaker's background, both cultural and personal, to benefit as much as possible from the communication process. Eye contact and appropriate body languages are also helpful.
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- Gordon, Thomas (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: Wyden books. p. 57. ISBN 0-399-12888-3.
- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. — Chapter 1; paragraph 3 under "A Way To Focus Attention," (book: page 3).
- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. — Chapter 1; paragraph 8 under "The NVC Process," (book: pages 7 and 8).
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- Fassaert T, van Dulmen S, Schellevis F, Bensing J (2007). "Active listening in medical consultations: development of the Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS-global)". Patient Educ Couns 68 (3): 258–64. doi:10.1016/j.pec.2007.06.011. PMID 17689042.
- Reed, Warren H. (1985). Positive listening: learning to hear what people are really saying. New York: F. Watts. ISBN 0-531-09583-5.
- Listening is powerful medicine, National Public Radio, February 2009
- Active Listening International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA
- Empathic listening skills How to listen so others feel heard, or listening first aid (University of California). Download a one hour seminar on empathic listening and attending skills.
- Exercise 4 — Active Listening, Center for Rural Studies, University of Vermont, Montpelier
- What is active listening?
- Active listening: A communication tool
- Homepage of the International Listening Association The professional organization whose members are dedicated to learning more about the impact that listening has on all human activity
- Better communication through better listening Eight barriers to effective listening
- Expert guide to active listening and listening skills
- Additional information on the three main levels of active listening