Active listening is a technique of careful listening and observation of non-verbal cues, with feedback in the form of accurate paraphrasing, that is used in counselling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts.
It requires the listener to pay attention, understand, respond and remember what is being said in the context of intonation, timing, and non-verbal cues (body language). This differs from other listening techniques like reflective listening and empathic listening.
Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. Empathic listening is about giving people an outlet for their emotions before being able to be more open, sharing experiences and being able to accept new perspectives on troubled topics that cause emotional suffering. Listening skills may establish flow rather than closed mindedness.
Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term “active listening” in 1957 in a paper of the same title (reprinted in 1987 in the volume “Communicating in Business Today”). Practicing active listening also emphasized Rogers’ (1980) concept of three facilitative conditions for effective counselling; empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Rogers and Farson write: “Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.”
Active listening comprises several components by the listener, who must pay attention to what the speaker is attempting to communicate and elicit clarification where necessary for comprehension.
Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker’s non-verbal behaviour and body language. The listener can observe non-verbal behaviours through kinesics, the study of body motion and posture; paralinguistics, the study of the tone of words; and proxemics, the study of physical distance and posture between speakers. Having the ability to interpret a person’s body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s message.
Comprehension is a shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction. This is the first step in the listening process. The second step is being able to take breaks between discernible words, or talking segmentation.
Retaining is the second step in the process. Memory is essential to the active listening process because the information retained when a person is involved in the listening process is how meaning is extracted from words. Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. Memories are fallible, things like cramming may cause information to be forgotten.
Active listening is an interaction between speaker and listener. It adds action to a normally passive process.
Active listening can be assessed using the active listening observation scale (ALOS).
The Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS) was developed to measure the perceived or observed frequency of active listening enacted by physicians during patient consultations. Fassaert, van Dulmen, Schellevis, & Bensing (2007) provided evidence of adequate reliability estimates (α > .80) and construct validity for a 7-item version of the ALOS. Additional research has extended the ALOS to supportive listening contexts and provided evidence of appropriate reliability with 11 items (α > .90) as well as evidence of measurement model validity (Bodie & Jones, 2012). As of 2017, researchers are currently developing an extensive validity portfolio for the scale, particularly as an assessment of the occurrence of particular behaviours associated with active listening such as asking questions and displaying nonverbal understanding.
Other scales include:
- Facilitating Listening Scale (FLS).
- Active – Empathic Listening Scale (AELS).
- Active Listening Attitude Scale (ALAS).
Refer to The Sourcebook of Listening Research: Methodology and Measures (25 August 2017) by Debra L. Worthington and Graham D. Bodie (Editors), published by John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Barriers to Active Listening
There are a multitude of factors that may impede upon someone’s ability to listen with purpose and intention; these factors are referred to as listening blocks. Some examples of these blocks include rehearsing, filtering, and advising. Rehearsing is when the listener is more focused on preparing their response rather than listening. Filtering is when a listener focuses only on what they expect to hear, while tuning out other aspects of what is being said, and lastly, advising is when the listener focuses on problem solving, which can create a sense of pressure to fix what the other person is doing wrong. Some barriers are due to hunger or fatigue of the listener, making them irritated and less inclined to listen to the speaker. Sometimes it is due to the language the speaker uses – such as high sounding and bombastic words that can lead to ambiguity. Other barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span.
Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else’s argument for its weaknesses and ignore its strengths. This may include a distortion of the speaker’s argument to gain a competitive advantage. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created.
Shift response is the general tendency of a speaker in a conversation to affix attention to their position. This is a type of conversational narcissism – the tendency of listeners to turn the topic to themselves without showing sustained interest in others. A support response is the opposite of a shift response; it is an attention giving method and a cooperative effort to focus the conversational attention on the other person. Instead of being me-oriented like shift response, it is we-oriented. It is the response a competent communicator is most likely to use.
Understanding of Non-Verbal Cues
Ineffective listeners are unaware of non-verbal cues, though they dramatically affect how people listen. To a certain extent, it is also a perceptual barrier. Up to 93% of people’s attitudes are formed by non-verbal cues. This should help one to avoid undue influence from non-verbal communication. In most cases, the listener does not understand the non-verbal cues the speaker uses. A person may show fingers to emphasize a point, but this may be perceived as an intent by the speaker to place their fingers in the listener’s eyes. Overuse of non-verbal cues also creates distortion, and as a result listeners may be confused and forget the correct meaning.
Overcoming Listening Barriers
The active listening technique is used to improve personal communications in organizations. Listeners put aside their own emotions and ask questions and paraphrase what the speaker says to clarify and gain a better understanding of what the speaker intended to say. Distractions that interrupt the listener’s attention are one of the major barriers to effective listening. These include external factors such as background noise and physical discomfort, and internal distractions, such as thoughts about other things and lack of focus. Another barrier is misinterpretation of what the speaker is attempting to communicate, including assumption of motives, and “reading between the lines”, as is premature judgment of the speaker’s point, which can occur as a consequence of the listener holding onto a rigid personal opinion on the topic. This problem can be mitigated by asking the speaker what they mean when it is unclear, though this is not guaranteed to work every time. A strong disagreement hinders the ability to listen closely to what is being said. Eye contact and appropriate body languages are seen as important components to active listening, as they provide feedback to the speaker. The stress and intonation used by the speaker may also provide information to the listener, which is not available in the written word.
Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organising, tutoring, medical workers talking to patients, HIV counselling, helping suicidal persons, management, counselling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation or small talk to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
A listener can use several degrees of active listening, each resulting in a different quality of communication.
The proper use of active listening results in getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improved cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Active Listening in Music
Active listening has been developed as a concept in music and technology by François Pachet, researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory, Paris. Active listening in music refers to the idea that listeners can be given some degree of control on the music they listen to, by means of technological applications mainly based on artificial intelligence and information theory techniques, by opposition to traditional listening, in which the musical media is played passively by some neutral device.
A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active listening techniques in the context of couple’s therapy, the typical couple was still distressed.
Active listening was criticized by John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as being of limited usefulness:
Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk. . . . After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this approach to counseling doesn’t work, not just because it’s nearly impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because successful conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages succeed. One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they’re upset.
Robert F. Scuka defends active listening by arguing that:
…a careful reading of the Hahlweg et al. (1984) study reveals that Gottman cites only certain (one-sided) results from the study. He also overlooks several important considerations that call into question his implied dismissal of the RE model as a legitimate therapeutic intervention for distressed couples.
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