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Active Listening Skills

Since more than half the time you spend in communication is probably spent listening, you should be an expert by now. Unfortunately, however, really good listeners are the rare exception. Most people listen passively, because they consider speaking to be the active component of communication. That is because they confuse listening with hearing.

When you walk through a mall or enter a restaurant, you probably hear music playing in the background. Contrast that with the experience of attending a concert. In the first case you are hearing, in the second you are listening. A similar dynamic exists in communication with others. We hear a lot, but we are less likely to listen with attention.

We all need to develop our dynamic listening (sometimes called active listening), because we generally allow much of what we hear to go in one ear and out the other. The semanticist S. I. Hayakawa gave this example of poor listening: Jones says something, Smith gives a heated response to what he mistakenly believes Jones said, and Jones tries to refute what he mistakenly believes Smith meant."*

This enormous energy waste is easily remedied by using a very simple technique called reflecting back. After Jones has spoken, Smith recounts what he understood Jones to be saying. If Jones agrees, Smith then continues with his remarks. If Jones disagrees, he can restate his case in another way that leaves less room for misinterpretation. Smith then reports what he has heard. The exchange continues on this level until Jones is satisfied that he has been understood. The conversation might go like this:

Jones: The records in your department are terribly confusing to interpret.

Smith: Are you saying that I keep bad records?

Jones: No, not at all. I'm saying that the complexity of your work makes reporting a difficult task. I'm impressed by what you've done, but I need help understanding it.

Smith: Thanks for the compliment. So you need someone to work with you when you look them over?

Jones: That's exactly it! Any suggestions?

This technique can become ridiculous if used all the time; in talking about the weather, for instance:

Jones: What's the weather like outside?

Smith: Am I correct in assuming that you are asking for my knowledge about the current temperature, humidity, and rate of precipitation?

But it is an invaluable tool to use when taking directions or instructions, when discussing matters that might put the participants on the defensive, or when dealing with problems in a close relationship. For example:

Tom: The children have really been hard to deal with lately. I'm getting fed up.

Terri: You are really frustrated by their behavior.

Tom: Yes - do you think it's just me, or have you noticed it too?

The next time you find yourself embroiled in a heated debate, why not try this "reflecting" strategy? You just might find that there really was no disagreement in the first place. If there is, at least you'll have a clearer understanding of what the problem stems from.

* Hayakawa, S. I., Through the Communication Barrier (Harper and Row, 1979), 73.

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