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Developing Active Listening Skills
The ability to be an effective listener is too often taken for granted. We confuse hearing with listening. Hearing is merely picking up sound vibrations. Listening is making sense of what we hear. Listening requires paying attention, interpreting, and remembering sound stimuli.

Active Versus Passive Listening

Effective listening is active rather than passive. In passive listening, you're like a tape recorder. You absorb the information given. If the speaker provides you with a clear message and makes his or her delivery interesting enough to keep your attention, you'll probably get most of what the speaker is trying to communicate.

But active listening requires you to "get inside" the speaker's head so you can understand the communication from his or her point of view. As you'll see, active listening is hard work. You have to concentrate, and you have to want to fully understand what a speaker is saying. Students who use active listening techniques for an entire fifty-minute lecture are as tired as their instructor when the lecture is over because they've put as much energy into listening as the instructor puts into speaking.

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There are four essential requirements for active listening: (1) intensity, (2) empathy, (3) acceptance, and (4) a willingness to take responsibility for completeness.

The active listener concentrates intensely on what the speaker is saying and tunes out the thousands of miscellaneous thoughts (about money, sex, vacations, parties, friends, getting the car fixed, and the like) that create distractions. What do active listeners do with their idle brain time? They summarize and integrate what's been said! They put each new bit of information into the context of what's preceded it.

Empathy requires you to put yourself in the speaker's shoes. You try to understand what the speaker wants to communicate rather than what you want to understand. Notice that empathy demands both knowledge of the speaker and flexibility on your part. You need to suspend your own thoughts and feelings and adjust what you see and feel to your speaker's world. In that way you increase the likelihood that you'll interpret the message in the way the speaker intended.

An active listener demonstrates acceptance. He or she listens objectively without judging content. This is no easy task. It's natural to be distracted by the content of what a speaker says, especially when we disagree with it. When we hear something we disagree with, we begin formulating our mental arguments to counter what is being said. Of course, in doing this we miss the rest of the message. The challenge for the active listener is to absorb what's being said and to withhold judgment o content until the speaker is finished.

The final ingredient of active listening is taking responsibility for completeness. That is, the listener does whatever is necessary to get the full intended meaning from the speaker's communication. Two widely used active listening techniques to achieve this end are listening for feelings as well as for content and asking questions to ensure understanding.

Developing Effective Active Listening Skills

From a review of literature on active listening, we can identify eight specific behaviors that effective active listeners demonstrate. As you review these behaviors, as yourself whether these behaviors describe your listening practices. If you're not cu recently using these techniques, there's no better time than right now to begin developing them.

Make Eye Contact. How do you feel when somebody doesn't look at you when you're speaking? If you're like most people, you're likely to interpret this as aloofness or disinterest. It's ironic that while "you listen with your ears, people judge whether you are listening by looking at your eyes." Making eye contact with the speaker focuses your attention, reduces the likelihood that you'll become distracted, an encourages the speaker.

Exhibit Affirmative Nods and Appropriate Facial Expressions. The effective listener shows interest in what's being said. How? Through nonverbal signals. Affirmative nods and appropriate facial expressions that signal interest in what's being said, when added to eye contact, convey to the speaker that you're really listening.

Avoid Distracting Actions or Gestures. The other side of showing interest avoiding actions that suggest that your mind is somewhere else. When listening don't look at your watch, shuffle papers, play with your pencil, or engage in similar distractions. They make the speaker feel that you're bored or uninterested. Further more, they indicate that you aren't fully attentive and might be missing part of the message that the speaker wants to convey.

Ask Questions. The critical listener analyzes what he or she hears and asks quests. This behavior provides clarification, ensures understanding, and assures the speaker that you're listening.

Paraphrase. Paraphrasing means restating in your own words what the speaker has said. The effective listener uses phrases as "What I hear you saying is ..." or "Do you mean . . . ?" Why rephrase what's already been said? There are two reasons. First, it's an excellent control device to check on whether you're listening carefully. You can't paraphrase accurately if your mind is wandering or if you're thinking about what you're going to say next. Second, it's a control for accuracy. By rephrasing in your own words what the speaker has said and feeding it back to the speaker, you verify the accuracy of your understanding.

Avoid Interrupting the Speaker. Let the speaker complete his or her thoughts before you try to respond. Don't try to second-guess where the speaker's thoughts are going. When the speaker is finished, you'll know it.

Don't Overtalk. Most of us would rather speak our own ideas than listen to what someone else says. Too many of us listen only because it's the price we have to pay to get people to let us talk. While talking might be more fun and silence might be uncomfortable, you can't talk and listen at the same time. The good listener recognizes this fact and doesn't overtalk.

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Make Smooth Transitions Between the Roles of Speaker and Listener. As a student sitting in a classroom, you probably find it relatively easy to get into an effective listening frame of mind. Why? Because communication is essentially one-way; the instructor talks and you listen. But the instructor-student dyad is atypical. In most work situations, you're continually shifting back and forth between the roles of speaker and listener. The effective listener makes transitions smoothly from speaker to listener and back to speaker. From a listening perspective, this means concentrating on what a speaker has to say and practicing not thinking about what you're going to say as soon as you get a chance.

Source of Reference:
Stephen Robbins and David Decenzo, Fundamentals of Management, Prentice Hall. You can obtain this fine book here