Active Listening Skills - Definition of Active Listening

Any manager who can master the techniques of active listening will be able to have a more productive and motivated team. This is because your team members will feel that they are listened to and understood. The atmosphere active listening engenders within your team means that they will be happy to contribute their views and ideas, creating a strong connection between members.

Definition of Active Listening

There are three components of active listening that you need to understand in order to master this essential communication skill. They are:

1. Listener Orientation
2. The Reflective Technique
3. Questioning Skills

Listener Orientation
Successful active listening begins with you making a conscious effort to approach the conversation with a positive attitude to the other person and to the encounter itself. This means that the central question for you is not 'What can I do for this person?' or even 'How do I see this person?' but rather 'How does this person see themselves and their situation?'

Listener Orientation

In his original paper on active listening, the clinical psychologist Carl Rogers felt that, for best results, the listener orientation should be characterized by undivided attention, empathy, respect, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness.

Undivided Attention
This should be self-explanatory: 100 percent of your attention is on the speaker. You need to make sure that any important communication takes place in an environment that is free of distractions and where you won't be disturbed. You should also switch your cell phone to silent and avoid looking at it, or at your computer screen, or anything other than the person you are listening to.

Empathy begins with awareness of another person's feelings and develops naturally out of active listening. Obviously, it would be easier to empathize if the other party simply told you how they felt. However, unless you are dealing with someone who is unusually candid you will need to interpret nonverbal cues. You also need to pay attention to the precise language that they are using.

You can show empathy by acknowledging their emotions, whether these are positive or negative. For example: 'I can understand why you feel that way.'

The ability to empathize is critical, as it helps you to 'tune in' to the things that are important to the speaker. Empathy is surprisingly difficult to achieve because we all have a strong tendency to advise, tell, agree, or disagree from our own point of view.

Empathy and active listening

This means thinking well of every person, rather than judging them according to a preconceived standard of personal worth. It does not necessarily mean agreeing with them, but it does mean that you should be respectful on a personal level, rather than dismissive or condescending.

Acceptance, in this context, is very close to the concept of respect, and again requires a non-judgmental approach. It means that you should avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person says. It is simply accepted as the current state of play and this will serve as a starting point for later discussion. This attitude encourages the speaker to be less defensive and to say things that they might otherwise keep hidden.

This refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on your part as the listener. This can be a problem if you have strong negative feelings about what you are hearing. For example:

If you are annoyed with someone it can be very difficult to show empathy, respect, or acceptance.

In this case your choice would be either to admit to feeling annoyed or to postpone the conversation until you have calmed down.

The first course of action may be the better one because honesty on your part will usually lead to the speaker opening up as well, rather than both of you communicating from behind a mask of false affability.

The principle of congruence is an important one because people are very good at reading each other's body language and para-verbal signals. This means that if what you say is at odds with what you feel then the other party will notice this and believe either that you are lying or confused. Generally speaking, these conflicting meanings leave the recipient suspicious or hostile, without quite knowing why.

This refers to focusing on specifics rather than vague generalities. For example, consider the statements:
'Supplier X is always late delivering.'
'Supplier X has been more than one day late on three out of the last five deliveries.'

The first of these is a vague statement whilst the second is concrete. Often, a person who has a problem will avoid painful feelings by being abstract or impersonal, and will say things like:
'IT support seem to be a bit overworked.'
'The management need to get a grip on tasking.'

When what they really mean is:
'John Smith from IT support is not returning my phone calls.'
'I've got too much work and Jane is sitting around doing nothing.'

They may also depersonalize things by saying something like, 'I think most people want …' rather than 'I want.' You can encourage concreteness by asking them exactly who or what specific incident they are referring to.

You may also be interested in:
Active Listening Skills for Managers | Reflective Technique | Questioning Skills | Barriers to Active Listening | Advantages of Active Listening.

Key Points

  • Listener orientation means making a conscious effort to approach the conversation with a positive attitude to the other person and to the encounter itself.
  • It is characterized by undivided attention, empathy, respect, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness.
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