By Jeff Dwarshuis LMSW ACSW
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is a communication technique that requires a listener in a relationship to use specific language to show an understanding of a speaker’s expression. The language, which consists of suggested phrases combined with the listener’s response, is designed to create psychological safety for the speaker. This structured process is highlights the importance of the speaker’s words and meaning and leaves no room for advice giving. Active listening is a developed skill which can be learned by most anyone to improve understanding and relational closeness between two people. Active Listening has four main parts; they are paraphrasing, clarifying, giving feedback and listening with your body.
A. Paraphrasing – Paraphrasing is the first step in the active listening process. After hearing what the speaker initially says, the listener provides what is called a mirroring statement. A mirroring statement is a set of words that are nearly identical to the words said by the speaker and are preceded by one of the phrases below. The use of these phrases followed by a mirroring statement creates a paraphrase and an atmosphere that is centered on the speaker. Following this structure keeps the attention off of the listener by eliminating the possibility of advice giving, question asking or interpretation. With this combination of a heightened focus on the speaker and the diminished importance of the listener’s thoughts, a sense of communicative predictability allows the speaker to feel emotionally safe. Generally when people feel safe they will express more. Consider using one of the phrases below to start the mirroring statement.
So you are saying…In other words…If I understand you correctly…What I hearing you saying is that…Let me get this straight…
After paraphrasing is complete the speaker should have the sense that they were heard and are understood. The listener, however, does not have to agree with what was said.
B. Clarifying – After giving feedback, the listener should clarify to the speaker what they heard. This is done by asking questions about the presented topic and making sure there are no misunderstandings. Since the listener is actively seeking understanding, clarifying should make the speaker feel important and that their concerns have value. The listener also should be sure to have a goal of understanding the meaning of what the person said rather than being preoccupied with the factual information the person provides. Too much attention to facts will cause the speaker to feel interrogated.
To establish language that leads to clarification ask the “who, what, when, where” questions to make sure the speaker is understood.
C. Feedback – After paraphrasing and clarifying the listener should give feedback. Feedback is a supportive yet honest expression of the listener’s opinion regarding the topic. Feedback should be given at the same time as the discussion because the speaker is then more likely to hear the feedback. Feedback gives the speaker an understanding of the impact of their language and it can provide a fresh point of view.
Feedback should be honest but supportive. For example to say “I think you may have made a mistake” rather than “You blew it!”
D. Listening With Your Body – Listening with your body is an unspoken gesture that is done while listening to someone. These gestures make it easier for the speaker to talk. This can be done in many ways. For example,
Maintain eye contact, move closer or lean forward, nod as positive reinforcement, smile or frown in sympathy, keep posture open, remove distraction and remove objects between self and presenter.
Active listening is a developed skill. Begin by practicing each part separately and memorizing the suggested phrases before listening. Active listening can be used with family, employees, colleagues and friends. You will discover that this tool increases understanding and closeness in relationships.