Listening may seem like making sympathetic eye contact and nodding your head occasionally to give your listening partner the impression that you’re paying attention (and also to stop yourself from literally nodding — off) but real listening involves much more.
Here is an approach that hardcore listeners — psychologists — use to not just give the impression of listening to to hear people and make the listenee to feel heard.
The approach is called “Reflective Listening” or “Active Listening.” Even though this comes from the fields of counseling and psychotherapy, good conversationalists have practiced a form of this since time immemorial. These techniques are useful in learning the art of interpersonal skills and also useful in many everyday situations. Reflective listening shows people that you 1. are listening 2. are empathetic, and 3. are validating (“validating” does not me agreeing, per se.)
The listener is only listening and trying to understand what the other person is saying from their point of view. The listener isn’t trying to solve anybody’s problem, give advice or give an opinion. The listener isn’t asking “How can I solve this person’s problems” or even “How do I feel about this person?” The listener is putting all of their energy into trying to understand exactly how this person sees themselves and their situation. The listener’s goal is simply to understand what the other person is saying or how they feel.
The listener’s desire and effort to understand the recipient and the recipient’s internal frame of reference rather than to interpret the recipient through an external point of view, such as a theory; a set of standards, or the listener’s preferences. The listener expresses this empathy verbally and non-verbally through language such as “I follow you,” “I’m with you” or “I understand.” The key is to listen and to understand through the recipients own perspective. A person who sees that a listener is really trying to understand his or her meanings will be willing to explore his or her problems and self more deeply. Empathy is surprisingly difficult to achieve. We all have a strong tendency to advise, tell, agree, or disagree from our own point of view.
Closely related to empathy. Acceptance means having respect for a person for simply being a person. Acceptance should be as unconditional as possible. This means that the listener should avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person says. This attitude encourages the other person to be less defensive and to explore aspects of self and the situation that they might otherwise keep hidden
Refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener. Candor on the part of the listener tends to evoke candor in the speaker. When one person comes out from behind a facade, the other is more likely to as well.
Refers to focusing on specifics rather than vague generalities. For example, instead of a agreeing with a statement like “You just can’t trust a manager. They care about themselves first and you second”, you can ask what specific incident the speaker is referring to.
Check understanding – paraphrasing. Repeat back to the speaker what they said. Don’t repeat but paraphrase what you heard.
Go a step further by asking a question for clarification or elaboration. We often miss the meaning of what someone said. If done well, this is actually an opportunity for the speaker to further elaborate. It’s hard to change your perspective but this is not a test of your listening skills. If you misunderstood, don’t be hurt. You’ve provided an opportunity for the speaker to further elaborate and correct. That proves that this technique does truly clarify communication. For most of us, it takes a lot of practice before we become natural and effective at reflecting. Our first few efforts may sound forced, phony, patronizing, and even moronic. Once you practice for awhile, you may find out that you’re very good at it. It takes a lot of the burden off of your shoulders as well.
Try these techniques out for yourself. You’ll notice that once you try to understand what the other person is saying without formulating a counter argument in your head, you’ll be a far more effective communicator, friend and colleague.