4.3 Practising Active Listening
What is active listening?
There are many definitions for active listening, but generally, it is a technique of careful listening between the mentor and the mentee(s). The mentor also has to observe non-verbal cues, ask questions to fully understand the mentee’s content message and understand the mentee’s emotions. This means that, on the one hand, there is an active listener who pays attention all the time and makes sure that everything that is being said is understood (by responding, remembering, timing etc.), and on the other hand, there is a speaker who talks.
Listening and Hearing
There is a vast difference between listening and hearing. Hearing could be defined as accidental, involuntary and effortless. We are constantly surrounded by noise, so ‘listening‘ to the sounds of cars, trains, workers etc. is basically hearing because we do not pay much attention to these sounds. Listening, in contrast, is focused, voluntary and intentional. The listener needs to pay attention to the whole story a speaker tells. It does not mean only paying attention to the content but also to the intonation, how is it said, to the use of language and body language as well.
Signs of active listening
The signs of active listening could be divided into two groups:
- The first are non-verbal signs. Here you can find, for example, a smile or nodding (a way of agreeing or a signal that a message is understood). Eye contact is crucial for active listening (it encourages the speaker). Posture is another sign of active listening (leaning forward or a slight slant of the head). Mirroring is another sign; by this, you can express sympathy, empathy and interest. A good listener will never be distracted by the surroundings (a mobile phone, looking at a watch etc.).
- The second group are verbal signs such as remembering (by remembering details and ideas, the listener encourages the speaker to continue) or asking relevant questions. The listener sometimes needs to clarify what is being said. We can do this by questioning or reflecting. To demonstrate that the listener understands what is being said, reflecting (paraphrasing) is used. Use open questions to provide enough space for the mentee to let them express what they want to say. The last verbal sign of active listening is summarisation; this means summarising what has been said (by the mentee) in the listener’s own words.
How to practice active listening
The advantage is that you can practice active listening every day whenever you communicate with people. You should gradually improve in these five basic skills of active listening:
- A) Pay full attention to the speaker.
- Ensure you face the speaker.
- Give the speaker your undivided attention, listen, perceive and understand their message.
- Do not divide your attention, Do not look at your mobile phone, other people or activities around you.
- B) Show that you are listening.
- Be aware of your body language — crossed arms can make you seem closed or negative. Use friendly facial expressions such as a nod or a smile.
- Encourage the speaker to continue by using brief verbal comments.
- Ensure your posture and demeanour are open and inviting.
- C) Ask related and relevant questions.
- Reflect on what has been said by paraphrasing.
- Ask for clarification if you do not understand everything.
- Summarise what was said by the speaker.
- D) Respond appropriately.
- Avoid attacking the speaker verbally or putting them down otherwise.
- Avoid interrupting the speaker unnecessarily.
- Respond openly and honestly, with an appropriate tone of voice and use a respectful communication style.
- Treat the other person as you would want to be treated during communication.
- E) Do not judge and assess messages prematurely.
- Avoid making assumptions.
- Be empathic and non-judgmental.
- Perceive and understand the message from the perspective of the speaker.
- Do not try to change the subject of the conversation to something you prefer.
- Listen to the entire message before starting with your comments.
Reflective questions for the reader:
- Can you explain what active listening is?
- Can you explain why each of the following elements is important in active listening?
- Pay full attention to the speaker.
- Show that you are listening.
- Ask related and relevant questions.
- Respond appropriately.
- Do not judge and assess messages prematurely.