Showing You Care: Active Listening

Have you ever found yourself embarrassed in a conversation when it was obvious that you had "zoned out" and had not heard an important part in a conversation?  As you mentally scramble, trying to think of an appropriate response, did you berate yourself for "zoning out?"  Well, one of the best ways to improve your conversation skills is to improve your listening skills.

Volunteer Services Manager Jason Pell is an expert at listening to people.  Every day, he helps library staff with volunteers:  training, providing guidance, creating programs, running meetings, etc.  Working with volunteers requires a deep interest in people.  Of course, showing a deep interest in people also requires someone who is good at listening.

I attended an Active Listening Webinar taught by Jason recently.  Active listening is an important skill to develop because it is not easy to tune out the background noise that typically engrosses our minds.  However, the rewards can be numerous:  better relationships both at home and at work!

What is Active Listening?

According to Jason, active listening means "listening with intention to accomplish something."  It is not intuitive or easy.  So, we must work at practicing this skill every day by implementing the Five Skills of Active Listening:

  • Paying attention
  • Asking relevant questions
  • Paraphrasing (restating in your own words) to clarify
  • Deferring judgment
  • Responding with empathy

When you defer judgment, you pause what is going on for you and instead listen without any biases.

Responding with empathy does not mean that you feel sorry for the other person.  It means that you are acknowledging the other person’s reality.  How can you ensure that you are not interpreted as being condescending, though?  Jason advised "against interpreting how someone is feeling, but instead focusing on the situation."

Barriers to Active Listening

Why don’t we actively listen?  The simple answer is that it is hard!  There are many reasons why we are not focused and actively listening.  Here are some barriers to active listening:

  • Our minds may be focused on other problems.
  • If we are not focused, we may not hear what another person is saying.
  • We may have our own interpretation of what someone is saying
  • We may have biases about the person or the situation that interfere with listening.
  • We may be experiencing our own negative emotions and may not hear what someone else is saying.

Strategies for Reducing Barriers to Active Listening

Here are some effective strategies that the Webinar group proposed:

  • Practice mindfulness
  • Before speaking to someone, empty your mind and listen with intent.
  • Suspend your judgment and interpretations so that you can hear everything.
  • Create an imaginary box in your mind into which you temporarily place your negative emotions and problems.  Close it and focus on the other person.
  • Have a feelings journal.  Give words to what you observe.  Becoming familiar with your feelings will allow you to become more aware of when you are experiencing negative emotions that interfere with active listening.
  • Remove selfishness by engaging in selfless activities like volunteering.
  • Sarcasm is a form of insecurity.  Acknowledge this part of you and engage in activities that will increase your feelings of security.

Like any other skill, active listening requires frequent practice.  Identify those barriers that interfere with your ability to listen actively.  Then, utilize strategies to reduce barriers to active listening.  Finally, start utilizing the 5 Skills of Active Listening in your daily conversations.  You will start to notice that other people will appreciate and respect you more!

Let me know about your experiences with active listening in the comments section below!

Books to Help Build Listening Skills

Listen Up or Lose Out, book cover
Listen Up, book cover
The Power of Listening, book cover
Business of Listening, book cover
Listening Below the Noise, book cover
You're Not Listening, book cover