Listening to other people seems simple. You probably don’t give it a second thought, but for those who study these things – listening, active listening in particular, is a key component of success in almost every field of endeavour.

In fact, developing your skills as an active listener might be the single best thing you can do for your career and your relationships with other people. A poor listener by contrast, is at best annoying and at worst, a real danger in the workplace.

What is so magic and mysterious about active listening?

Absolutely nothing! The definition is simply the requirement of a listener to feed back what they have heard from the speaker, by restating or paraphrasing what the speaker just said.

For those that have studied communication – you’ll recall that communication requires a sender and a receiver. All kinds of things can go wrong in the transmission of a message, especially when there are great barriers of time, distance, or language between sender and receiver.

What is so mysterious about active listening? Absolutely nothing!

But think about your own experiences. Someone is talking to you, maybe no more than a few feet away. You speak the same language. You have the same cultural references. There is nothing that should interfere with the efficient transmission of a message between the two of you. Right?

Wrong! (Ask my wife for more details.)

Active listening

Developing your skills as an active listener might be the single best thing you can do for your career and your relationships with other people.

Active listening, in which you tune out other distractions, focus on the person talking, and carefully consider what they are saying – without your own bias, judgements, instant conclusions, and assumptions – is almost impossible for many of us.

But for those who take listening seriously, good things happen. People appreciate someone who makes the effort to really listen and to understand what they are trying to say.  This leads to comprehension – a shared meaning of the message. This in turn avoids misunderstandings and helps build trust. Because so few of us take the time and effort required to be active listeners, you’ll find more people want to open up to you, or to work with you and they will seek you out, because there are so few active listeners around.

There are many reasons for being an active listener: better problem solving, greater understanding of complex issues, stronger development of teams and deeper more meaningful relationships. It’s also something that increases your professionalism in any field – education, health care, business, government.

Okay – you’re sold. Good! So what are the simple six steps? Here they are. Listen up!

  1. Make eye contact with the person talking to you, and maintain it in a friendly, non-confrontational manner while they are speaking to you. This communicates your interest in what they are saying, and lets them know that you have their attention. Don’t stare at them uncomfortably, but focus on being attentive and communicating this through your non-verbal cues, including eye contact.
  2. Put the speaker at ease by smiling, nodding or giving verbal cues such as “yes” “right” or other confirmation. Your goal is to encourage the person to communicate, knowing that you are doing all you can to absorb the message and carefully process what they are saying.
  3. Visualize what the speaker is saying, and stay focused on their words. Create a picture in your head of what the speaker is trying to communicate, and don’t get distracted with your phone, email, thinking about your witty comeback or anything else that takes you away from concentrating on what the speaker is saying.
  4. This is not judgement day – and your only task is to strive for comprehension. When you jump to conclusions, you are doing a disservice to the person speaking. You don’t have to agree with all or even anything they might be saying. You are only trying to ensure you have a complete understanding of what they are trying to communicate. Period.
  5. Ask short clarify questions that encourage the speaker to expand on their ideas. Sometimes it’s obvious when the speaker needs a prompt, while often you just need to get clarification on something you don’t quite understand.
  6. Re-state the message in your own words to the speaker to ensure you’ve understood what you have been told. Be as clear and true to the message as you can. Don’t edit it, change it, try to make it better or question it’s accuracy. The speaker, upon hearing their own words re-stated back to them with no commentary, editorializing or challenges, will feel much more at ease, and be receptive to further discussion.

These six steps will get you started on the path to active listening, and change how you interact with those around you. It doesn’t mean for a second that you stop sharing your opinions, advice or feelings. But now, after you have taken such diligent effort to understand and share the meaning of what another person is saying, your rebuttal, critique, advice, etc. will be much more welcomed and accepted.

Listening is simple.