Few people are born good listeners. There is a widely accepted belief that listening is a critical part of effective communication. How many people have consciously studied about listening skills? We all think we are good enough already. But if you’re not practicing active listening, chances are your listening skills are hindering your ability to communicate effectively. Most people become good listeners only by working at it.
Active listeners set aside their judgments and, instead, attempt to empathize with the speaker’s concerns. They adopt a conscious process of eliciting information, perceptions, and feelings. Active listening does more than generating information; it contributes to the development of trust and a good working relationship.
But before we look at what it takes to be a good active listener, it’s important to understand what gets in the way of this endeavor:
Listening is often seen as a passive activity in which the listener simply keeps quiet and allows others to talk. But the contrary is true. Being a good listener requires skill and a conscious effort.
Listening is seen by some as a weakness. Assertiveness is often viewed as a positive trait. Society tends to gravitate toward leaders who take fast, decisive action and speak forcefully.
Silence do make people uncomfortable in some cases. Many find silence so distressing that they jump to interrupt silence with their own ideas. These ideas can steer the conversation in a new direction instead of helping the speaker pursue his or her line of thought.
There are people who usually and in most cases and instances want to be heard. Some people think they won’t have a chance to comment on a point if the speaker moves on to another point, so they interrupt conversations to interject their thoughts.
People listen just to formulate what they will say next. While doing this, they may tune out the speaker, thereby engaging in intermittent listening.
Others also resist the message from the speaker in their mind. People tend to listen poorly to messages they disagree with. Careful listening carries an element of personal risk: being open to a message can make someone vulnerable to it. We may hear ideas or feelings that threaten us. Being a good listener requires recognizing your own feelings and reactions and, in turn, controlling the expression of them.
Becoming an effective listener requires mastering the techniques of active listening, which encourage the expression of ideas and feelings. Active listening consists of three elements: attention, suspension of judgment, and response.
Most people admit to having a short attention span. We’re easily distracted by the sights and sounds around us and by our own thoughts. Active listening demands a concentrated effort to pay complete attention to what the other person is saying.
One helpful technique is to pay frequent attention to the nonverbal signals given by the listener. In effect, you pause periodically to scan for messages conveyed through body language and facial expressions. Another technique is to mirror the posture and gestures of the speaker, when appropriate. For example, when he or she leans forward, you should lean forward.
Suspension of Judgment
You must withhold judgments, especially good/bad and right/wrong ones about the message or speaker, during the presentation. Any hint of disapproval can give the person reason to hesitate sharing with you. While withholding judgment can help facilitate active listening in just about any situation, it’s particularly important when the speaker is a member of your unit or organisation. Any indication (even nonverbal) that you disapprove of what’s being presented will likely interfere with the statements, if not the thinking, of the presenter and others listening to the presentation.
Active listening requires giving appropriate responses. The overall guideline is to avoid introducing a new idea. With active listening, you want the speaker to maintain control of the conversation. You can achieve this by paraphrasing the speaker’s comments and checking your understanding of them. You should not interject a thought that steers the discussion in another direction.
How can you practice active listening in your day-to-day communication with others at your work place or elsewhere? Active listening often employs three steps:
(1) Listen to a message,
(2) Paraphrase, or restate in your own words the message you received, and
(3) Feed the paraphrased message back to the speaker for confirmation.
Although active listening speeds up understanding, it actually slows down communication but the advantages, however, far outweigh this drawback.
Written by: Justice Peprah AGYEI.
A Chartered Insurer and an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute of United Kingdom and also Ghana (ACII-UK, ACIIG), and holds MPhil in Enterprise Risk Management and Business Consulting from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Attained Bachelor’s degree from University of Ghana, Legon and have Applied Insurance studies, Diploma and Advanced Diploma (AAIS & AIS) from Ghana Insurance College / Malta Insurance Training Institute.
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Managing Evolving Risk, American Institute for Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters, 1st Edition, 2020. Edited by Michael W. Elliot