Active Listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a very effective way for individual personality change and individual/group development. People who have been consistently listened to through active listening become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.

When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces the threat of having one’s ideas criticized, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is more likely to feel that his/her contributions are worthwhile.

Active listening also results in a change for the listener him/herself. Besides providing more information than any other activity, listening builds deep, positive relationships and tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener. Listening is a growth experience.

Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It demands practice. Perhaps more importantly, it may require changes in our own basic attitudes. Some of the major problems in active listening include: not having a sincere interest in the speaker; the inability to let go and see things from another person’s point of view.

There are 4 steps to becoming an Active Listener:
1. Attentive listening skills (3 V’s + B)
2. Open ended questioning
3. Empathetic listening and feedback
4. Paraphrase and Summarize

1. Attentive Listening Skills:

Your verbal and non-verbal behaviour must show your listener that you are in fact listening. You can do this by:

– Vocal qualities: Your vocal tone and speech rate also indicate clearly how you feel about another person. Think of how many ways you can say, “I am really interested in what you have to say” just by altering your vocal tone and speech rate.
Verbal tracking: If someone has come to you to talk about a topic, don’t change the subject!
– Visual / Eye contact: If you are going to talk to people, look at them.
– Attentive and authentic body language: Others know you are interested in them and what they have to say if you face them squarely and lean slightly forward, have an expressive face, and use encouraging gestures.

2. Open Ended Questioning:

In order to get others to open up, an active listener can use questions effectively to help a person talk. An effective listener uses open-ended questions to draw information from their speaker. Close-ended questions provide the listener with data, but do not promote the speaker to talk.

Close Ended Questions: Any questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” is a close-ended question. They provide facts, but do not promote the speaker to talk. E.g. “Do you like going to school?”

Open Ended Questions: Open-ended questions cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no” so they provide the listener with more information, allowing the listener to know more about a story while encouraging the speaker to talk. “E.g. “Why do you not like going to school?”

3. Empathetic Listening:

Encouraging, paraphrasing, and summarizing are basic to empathetic listening and enable you to let your speaker know that you are listening and what they have said has been heard. Responding to your speaker is known as feedback.

Encouragers – are a variety of verbal and non verbal means that allow the listener to prompt the speaker to continue talking. They include head nods, open-handed gestures, phrases such as “Uh-huh” and the simple repetition of key words the speaker has said.

Positive Feedback: Any positive information a speaker receives regarding a listeners’ actions/behaviours. E.g. head nods, compliments, eye contact, encouraging tone of voice, open body language, etc.

Negative Feedback: Any negative information that a speaker receives regarding the listeners’ actions/behaviours. E.g. Sarcasm, put downs, accusations, lack of eye contact, avoidant body language, etc.

4. Paraphrasing and Summarizations:

Paraphrasing – feeds back to the speaker the essence of what has just been said. The listener shortens and clarifies the speaker’s comments. Paraphrasing is not just saying exactly what the speaker said. It is using some of your own words plus the important main words of the speaker. E.g. Speaker: “I’m just so frustrated with how my parents treat me like a child.” Listener: “So, you are frustrated because you want your parents to trust you.”

Summarizations – are similar to paraphrases, but are used to clarify what the speaker has said over a longer time span. Summaries are longer paraphrases that often include emotional dimensions as well. Summarizations help the listener understand what the speaker is saying, and shows the listener that the speaker is listening to him/her.

Paraphrasing and summarizing usually involve four dimensions:
1. A sentence stem. Often you will want to use the speaker’s name. “Jamilla, it sounds like…”
2. Key words. The speaker’s exact own key words that they use to describe their situation. The repetition of key words is more important than it appears at first glance. Key words repeated usually lead the speaker to elaborate in greater detail on the meaning of that word to him or her.
3. Repeating. Repeat in your own words what was said,
4. A check-out. Implicitly or explicitly, check with the speaker to see that what you have heard is accurate. “Have I heard you correctly?”

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