Updated: Aug 18
Active listening is a communication skill that not only helps us to effectively understand a message, but also strengthens relationships with others through empathy.
"Listen to me with your eyes!" is a popular phrase, and although it may seem to be meaningless because our eyes don't really listen, it has a deeper meaning. Listening is not only the work of our ears, but of almost all of our senses and even our brain. Active listening is a communication skill required in our personal, academic and work relationships, which will propel us to be successful in each of them.
Is hearing the same as listening?
Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is something biological and involuntary, we do not need our consciousness to perceive our environment through our sense of hearing. On the other hand, listening is quite the opposite, since it requires more effort on our part as it takes up all our attention, and our way of seeing the world is also involved in order to interpret a message correctly.
Let's say, for example, that your favorite singer is playing in your living room. You could say that there are two ways to perceive the music: the first would be that you are in your living room and you have guests, so you decide to put the music in the background, where it is only decorative and you can distinguish the song and sing some lyrics.
On the other hand, the experience is different when you actually listen to a song. By putting your full attention on it you can notice the rhythm, distinguish the instruments used, notice the lyrics and in the end understand the full message of the song, that's where we usually say "this is a great song".
These two examples can be applied in everyday conversations, where we often put dialogues in the background for different reasons: wanting to multitask, not being in the mood (which reduces our attention span), not having the openness to listen to different opinions or constantly interrupting the other person out of prejudice or quickly assuming what the other person will say.
Active listening is a skill that allows us to consciously capture the complete message of a speaker with the intention of understanding, retaining and reflecting on what is being communicated. Beyond just listening, it involves giving our full attention, through body language, empathy and eye contact.
The false hero in education: passive listening
In the past, the perfect classroom model was for the teacher to speak uninterruptedly, while the students listened in silence. While this situation may be paradise for many teachers, the absence of noise is not necessarily a good sign; there may be students who appear to pay attention and even nod, but the reality is that many are likely to be passively listening and are more engaged inside their heads.
Passive listening is the type of one-sided listening where the receiver makes no effort and is only a spectator, who does not react or share ideas with the sender. This type of listening is not necessarily bad, as it is common in lectures or informal conversations; but it can be a strong opponent in the classroom.
However, there are some signs to identify this type of listening: the person may show an ignorant attitude, not get involved, be selective in certain parts of what is communicated and not understand in its entirety, and be distracted at the end of the conversation. Addressing passive listening will bring numerous benefits to both the teacher and the classroom, because it builds trust between teacher and students, increases understanding of learning, and fosters a positive environment for everyone in the classroom.
Encouraging participation, asking if what was covered in class was understood, and creating collaborative activities are some examples that should be done constantly so as not to monopolize the lesson and involve all participants. Teachers spend most of the time talking during their lessons, but sometimes they should also look for moments to just listen to their students. However, when talking to a student, teachers may rush to interrupt or think quickly of a solution before their student has finished speaking, which may result in a failure to understand what was meant; it is necessary to reflect on the message received in order to give the best response. In addition, the student may not be looking for a solution, but just wants to be heard.
Live in the present: techniques to encourage active listening
Active listening can be difficult to implement in our daily lives, but there are some techniques that will help us to encourage it when communicating with others.
Be open: Our mental models play an important role in communication, not accepting other points of view can close our listening channels; this through constant interruption or finishing the sender's sentences. We must practice patience, let the person finish speaking to fully understand what he/she is saying before answering.
Be empathetic: More than listening to problems, people like to solve them... and fast. Although it may not be our intention, we repeatedly interrupt or complete the sender's sentences; which can be counterproductive by interrupting the thread of the conversation or deviating from the original idea. In addition, preventing the person from finishing speaking will make them feel unappreciated by pushing their thoughts aside.
Paraphrase: In order to demonstrate that you have understood the message, a very valuable technique is to paraphrase in your own words what you have just been told; this may be redundant at first, but you will be surprised by the results of doing it consistently. You can start with phrases such as "What you are telling me is that...", "Do I understand correctly if what you told me is...?"
Reinforce: communication is two (or more). We can give affirmative actions through positive body language to confirm that you are receiving the message effectively: smiling, nodding our heads, maintaining eye contact and putting our hands in front of us.We can also engage with the sender by asking open-ended questions pertaining to the topic when relevant and summarizing the message to check that what we heard is the right thing to say.
Be present: There are currently thousands of distractors, whether it be physical (being in a noisy place, receiving notifications on your cell phone, etc.) and mental (being in your head thinking about personal issues). It is important to always be present in the moment, to be aware of respecting other people's time and to give them the attention they deserve.
Repeat: We have all been in situations where it is almost impossible to listen, either because the topic is boring or we are physically or mentally tired. A good technique to follow the thread of a conversation, meeting, class, etc. is to repeat in our head what the person is saying. In this way we can easily direct our concentration to what the speaker is saying.
Charlotte Brontë said: "the interest of the listener stimulates the tongue of the speaker". Active listening fosters positive communication with the other person, creating an environment of understanding and empathy; it is through active listening that the sender ensures that his message is received successfully, as well as feeling heard and valued. On the receiver's side, active listening helps the message being given to be understood to the maximum, thus becoming an active element that reinforces the communication process and is also able to reflect deeply on the message received.