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Active listening skills

Even those of us who feel that we’re good listeners can sometimes catch ourselves planning on what we’ll say next rather than really hearing what the other person is saying. Using active listening techniques helps to keep us focused on the speaker’s message. This technique allows us to demonstrate that we’re hearing what the other person is saying and that their views are important to us. Active listening requires the listener to provide both verbal and non-verbal feedback to the speaker and it’s a fundamental skill for anyone wishing to build better relationships at work and at home. Like any skill, active listening can be developed with practice and following these guidelines can help you to become an effective and attentive listener.

The importance of non-verbal listening skills

Giving our full attention to others relies to a considerable extent on our use of non-verbal communication (also known as body language). In fact, some studies have suggested that body language is more influential when communicating than the actual words we use:

  • 55% of what we communicate is through our body language
  • 37% of what we communicate is through our use of voice
  • 8% of what we communicate is through the content or ideas of words we use

Using non-verbal skills to aid listening

SOLER (Egan, 1986) is a technique often used by healthcare professionals although it’s applicable in any profession. The SOLER method helps others to feel heard and valued, while ensuring that their messages are fully understood by the listener. By following the SOLER guidelines, you’ll find that your listening skills improve and become much more effective.

S

Square

Face the speaker squarely resisting the urge to lean back or to the side.- If you’re sitting across from each other at a table or desk, clear all papers and other distractions before you begin so that there are no psychological or physical barriers between you.

O

Open

Maintain an open and accepting posture by keeping your legs uncrossed and your arms unfolded.

Resist the urge to play with pens or mobile phones and put all distracting objects away before you begin the conversation.

L

Leaning

Lean towards the speaker slightly without invading their personal space; this indicates to them that you’re involved and interested.

Remember that leaning back can convey the opposite message so try and watch your body language.

E

Eye contact

Maintain good eye contact with the speaker and resist the natural urge to look around the room or away. Be aware however that sustained direct eye contact can be intimidating for some people and may be seen as aggressive.

When listening, slight nodding can be useful to show the other person that you’re paying attention to what’s being said.

R

Relaxed

Be yourself and treat the other person as you would like to be treated.

Turn off your phone, and don’t fidget, look at emails or check the time. This form of non-verbal communication can really influence our tone of voice. For example, if we’re distracted by the clock, our tone will likely sound tense and anxious.

Active listening: combining SOLER and verbal feedback

When we’re actively listening, we’re paying obvious attention to what the other person is saying and how they’re saying it. The following guidelines will help you to develop your active listening skills but it’s also worth remembering that it’s a skill like any other and the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel.

1. Give the speaker your full attention

Remind yourself of the SOLER techniques and ensure that you remove any possible distractions such as your mobile or any paperwork. Make sure that you’re comfortable and the room isn’t too hot or cold – concentration is much more difficult when we’re focused on external stimuli. If you’re in a rush, suggest delaying the discussion until you’re able to give the other person your full and uninterrupted attention.

2. Offer the speaker regular encouragement

Listening actively allows us to help the speaker to feel more comfortable if they’re uncertain or anxious but it’s important that you’re careful not to interrupt them. Supporting someone to find their own words in their own time sometimes requires us to sit with the silence and give them the space to think through what they need to say. And gentle nodding or smiling when it’s appropriate can also help the speaker to feel at ease and unrushed.

If the speaker is feeling emotional, give them time to collect their thoughts and resist the temptation to interrupt them. You can respond to their feelings later by acknowledging them when giving feedback (summarising). You might say something like “I can hear that you’re really upset about this. Take as much time as you need”. Giving someone the space to communicate their distress is very reassuring and demonstrates that you’ve heard them and aren’t judging their experience.

3. Reflect to check your understanding

Reflecting helps you to demonstrate that you’ve heard what the speaker has said. A reflective statement is one that briefly focuses on the speaker’s message rather than their feelings about it. Using your own words rather than the speaker’s such as paraphrasing helps you to check your own understanding while letting them know that you’ve been actively listening. An example of reflection might be “You’re having childcare difficulties and would like a few days off to sort things out”, or “You’d like a pay rise because you feel that you’ve been putting in more effort than others on the team”. There is no judgement involved in reflecting, nor are you responding to the speaker’s request or needs. You’re simply checking your understanding of what they’re saying so that you can work with them towards a solution.

Reflecting is also helpful when you might still need to clarify what the other person is saying. Phrases like “Am I correct in thinking that you’re saying…” are helpful as is asking open-ended questions like “Tell me more about…”. Taking the time to reflect back to the speaker makes it easier for you to understand what the speaker needs while supporting them to really get their message across.

4. Summarising

Summarising when the speaker is finished requires the listener to pull together the speaker’s main ideas and feelings to demonstrate that they have understood the whole conversation. Summarising is useful when a lot of information has been covered and it also helps the speaker to hear a playback of what they’ve been saying. For example, if the speaker has told you of a number of issues they’re having you might say “It seems that you’re very unhappy at the moment. Your home life sounds very stressful and you’re really tired. You’ve also let me know that you’re feeling quite low and don’t know where to begin because everything feels overwhelming”. You’ve put the speaker’s thoughts into a concise summary which allows them to add anything they feel is needed to reach a solution.