I’ve got my ears on, I can hear you saying words, so I must be listening to you, right?
Not exactly. While hearing involves the physical act of perceiving sound (or comprehending shared words in another accessible manner), listening involves concentrating on the words being shared in an effort to understand their meaning to the speaker.
Active listening is about understanding the intent, feelings, and facts behind someone else’s words.
The listener’s goal is to give the speaker a respectful and non-judgmental space in which an empathetic understanding may be established to allow the person speaking to feel understood and, by experiencing a mirror held up of their intent, feelings, and facts, gain an objective and action empowering perspective of their situation.
What’s that you said about empathy? Sounds kind of complicated.
Empathy describes a sense of shared understanding wherein a listener attempts to understand a speaker’s feelings and communicate that sense of shared understanding. Think of it as stepping into the other person’s shoes in order to see and feel the situation as they do. The empathy inherent in active listening creates a deeper level of understanding for both the speaker and the listener.
So, how do we do we become active listeners?
By using your active listening skills, of course!
Silence, Encouragement, Reflection, Paraphrasing, Summarizing, Restatement, Clarification – those seem like a lot of skills to remember. Learning how these active listening skills reveal a speaker’s meaning by helping to understand their intent, feelings, and facts makes the list a little less daunting.
Silence gives a speaker space to consider what they want to say. It also shows respect on the listener’s part that what the speaker has to say is important and we are willing to wait for them to say it.
Encouragement refers to statements such as, “Go on” or “And then?” that encourage a speaker to talk more about the specifics of their feelings and situation. Encouragers also indicate we have an interest in understanding speaker’s meaning and value what they have to say.
Reflection is where empathy shines brightest. Reflection takes our comprehension of what a speaker has said, and verbalizes it into an expression of their emotions as we understand them. In its basic form, a reflection uses a stem statement like, “Sounds like you feel,” adds a feeling like, “sad,” and relates it in the context of the speaker’s situation.
For example, let’s say your friend just broke up with their significant other and they expressed to you they aren’t sure where to go from here. As an active listener trying to understand what they are going through, you might say: “Seems like you feel lost since the break up.”
Paraphrasing, summarizing, restatement, clarification – wow, those sure are a lot of big words to remember!
Let’s narrow down the main concept encompassed in these skills as one of opportunities for “checking in” with the speaker in order to confirm you are understanding their message, organize the important ideas being presented to expand the discussion further, demonstrate that you are listening and understanding their meaning, and to clear up anything you are confused about.
In striving to become an active listener by using these basic skills to foster empathy, you may help a speaker feel heard, maybe on a level they’ve never experienced prior. Empathy in essence extends a sense to them of not being alone, as well as creates an opportunity for the speaker to see their relationship to a situation in a different perspective and become empowered in that objective understanding.
Now that you know what active listening is, how about what it isn’t?
When someone comes to us in pain, wanting to talk, it can be instinctual to try to process their situation through disclosure of our personal experiences by talking about when something similar happened to us and how it made you feel and the things you did to get through it. What this does is make the conversation about how you felt and reacted rather than being about the person speaking to you who has their own unique feelings and response to what they are experiencing and who knows best the resources they have to get them through it.
By being an active listener, you are a first line resource of connection, both in creating a safe space for immediate understanding and linking that understanding to the resources a speaker has beyond.