The Art of Active Listening

Kimberly Casteline, Ph.D.

Research shows that the average person listens at only 25% efficiency, yet studies also show that most people think that they are above average listeners. Clearly, the majority of us need to hear a reality check when it comes to our listening! The mechanics of listening are clear, but active listening acknowledges that there is more to the processing and interpreting of auditory stimuli than just “hearing.” Thankfully, active listening is a skill that can be learned.Here are three key aspects to get you started:

Let’s start with silence. Many people are uncomfortable with silence. They know that listening involves keeping oneself quiet, but when the other person stops talking they feel that it’s their turn to reply. That may or may not be true. Active listening means being attuned to whether what has been said needs to be pondered in silence, repeated for confirmation, or questioned for elucidation. Active listening doesn’t mean that one simply waits for their turn to talk, but that we listen with the goal of having a mutually constructive interaction by responding appropriately.

Second is perspective. We all have a point of view. When engaging in active listening we need to be self-reflective enough to recognize our own biases so we can  be open to truly hear another perspective. Recognizing bias is different from entering a conversation with a perceived neutrality. All of our experiences and backgrounds give us a lens through which we see the world. So instead of believing that we are unbiased, we should acknowledge our point of view and listen attentively and non-judgmentally to others.

And thirdly there’s nonverbal communication. Intuitively we know that facial expressions and gestures communicate more than words alone (some estimate 80%), but body language is often not present in the realm of virtual meetings, emails, texts, and social media. Thus active listening when the cameras are off requires extra attention to ascertain what is not being said with words.

Bringing a respect for silence, unique perspectives, and non-verbal communication to conversations, will help to avoid misunderstandings, build trust, and strengthen bonds with others through constructive communication. And it can be applied in nearly any context. It’s particularly important when leading people. A study of managers and employees of a large hospital system found that listening explained 40% of the variance in leadership. Even when parties disagree, active listening increases the likelihood that conflicts will be resolved with a “win-win” solution. And in healthcare, active listening between patients and caregivers leads to better outcomes.

Although active listening requires effort, the increased satisfaction that comes from more mutually satisfying communication makes it a worthwhile endeavor. And the positive benefits are music to our ears.

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