The skill of active listening: Are you really paying attention?

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding and true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

Carl Rogers, person-centered therapist 

How often do you find yourself pretending you’re listening when in fact your mind is wandering elsewhere? How often do we participate in calls while doing 5 other tasks in between, thinking we are multitasking, when actually we’re just not really listening? There are plenty of studies showing that multitasking isn’t really a thing.

We may believe that we are doing more than one thing simultaneously, but in fact we’re actually splitting our attention quickly from one task to the other, distracting ourselves more than really focusing. Our intention is surely aligned: we WANT to listen. The problem is that we often don’t know how to do it. 

First of all, listening requires our full attention, which is tiring because we need to focus on the other person, what and how something is being said and what is really meant by that. We need to put that information into context, and try to look at things from our communicator’s point of view instead of our own. Active listening requires us to not intervene with our own opinions and instead really try to understand the idea that is being shared with us, without judging or wanting to correct the other party. 

When listening to others, don’t we all often go into hero-mode, wanting to solve the other person’s problem, giving opinions on how to do things, what would be “better”, what could “solve” their problem? In general we don’t let the others even finish their sentence. The moment they share some initial idea on what’s troubling them, we are already intervening with our perfect solution. We seldom really hear the whole story first. And even if we do, we see it from our perspective, not theirs, so we are still…not listening. 

Nobody is born an expert when it comes to developing listening skills but it’s an ability that can be learned, trained and improved over time. It does, though, require a lot of effort, dedication and mostly concentration to achieve it. So where to start?

Here are some initial concepts that can guide us on the path of becoming great active listeners.

Active listening requires open-mindedness:
  • Just because the person is having a problem doesn’t mean he is wrong. 
  • If his/her perception is different from mine, it doesn’t mean his/hers is incorrect.
  • If he/she has a particular problem I find to be easy or not a problem at all, it doesn’t make it less of a problem for him/her.
  • If I don’t agree with his/her possible solution, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad solution.
Active listening requires modesty:
  • I don’t know more than the other person. 
  • I don’t have all the answers. 
  • I don’t need to save him/her. 
  • I don’t need to find a solution if I’m not asked for it. 
  • My solution may not be helpful for him/her, even if it was helpful for me.
Active listening requires to stop talking:
  • Let the other person finish his/her idea. 
  • Try to stop that inner urge to answer and interrupt.
  • When listening to another person’s story, we don’t need to share our own personal story.
Active listening requires interest:
  • If you’re not interested in the other person’s problems, don’t start a conversation. 
  • If you don’t care what he/she has to say, don’t start a conversation
  • If you’re stressed or don’t have enough time, don’t start a conversation. 
  • If your mind is busy trying to figure out what you’re having for dinner tonight, don’t start a conversation.
  • If you’re not mentally present or just not available, don’t start a conversation. 
Active listening requires to ask questions:
  • Don’t assume you got the point. Re-check by asking if what you understand is correct. 
  • Rephrase what he/she said to confirm you got the idea. 
  • Ask questions if you don’t get the full picture of the situation. 
  • Ask questions if you have doubts about the story. 
  • Ask questions…because you could be missing important information. 
Active listening requires to stop multitasking: 
  • If you’re listening to someone, don’t chat with others at the same time.
  • If you’re listening to someone, don’t catch up with work. 
  • If you’re listening to someone, don’t answer emails.
  • If you’re listening to someone, don’t start preparing your lunch.
  • I think you get the point…
Active listening requires the right amount of time:
  • There are some things that need more than 5 minutes to be solved…recognize them on time.
  • There are other things which should never take more than 5 minutes…recognize them too. 
  • Attention starts to decline after about 45-60 minutes, so plan your time wisely. Be aware that anything said after that could (and most probably will) not be as effective. 
  • Time is a valuable asset; don’t waste it on unproductive matters. 

There’s so much to gain from openly and actively listening to others and the world that surrounds us. There’s so much we fail to hear (and see) because we are too busy trying to get our own thoughts in order. 

By truly listening we may even experience what it is to be present in the here and now, and this uncertainty that comes from letting go of expectations and ignoring the outcome of a conversation, can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. But the reward of empathic and authentic listening goes far beyond our imagination, allowing us to embrace new ideas, new concepts, new questions…Basically, we are rewarded with a whole new mindset that will allow us to grow and expand our knowledge to new horizons.

Written by Michelle de Nevares,

Project manager at GM2. 

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