Active listening brings better communication.

Robin LaBarbera, PhD, DSW
Master active listening.(Shutterstock)

Listening is not just hearing what the other party in the conversation has to say. Poet Alice Duer Miller said this about listening: "Listening means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us.”

I’d be willing to bet you’re not listening as well as you might think. Sure, you might hear the other person, but a lot can get in the way of truly listening and receiving the speaker’s message.

Barriers to listening.

Listening is a critical leadership skill – without it we cannot be an effective leader. A barrier to listening is anything that is hindering you from recognizing, understanding, and accurately interpreting the message you are receiving. There are many things that can pull our attention away from the speaker’s message.

The top five barriers to active listening are below. Which of them have you found yourself doing when someone is speaking? Which have you experienced when you are the speaker?

  1. Judgment of the speaker or topic. Focusing on your own perspective about the person speaking to you or your feelings about the topic distracts you from listening. You might have a hard time listening because you don’t agree with the speaker or the topic, and you might allow these personal judgements to distract you.
  2. Preparing what you’re going to say. It’s common to be formulating a reply while the other person is still talking. Thinking about what you’re going to say next in response to the speaker pulls your attention away from the speaker or the message – you’re not really listening in these situations.
  3. Distraction or daydreaming. Have you ever found yourself looking at other people walking by, gazing out the window, thinking about your next meeting, or looking at the email or text alerts that pop up on your screen? It pulls your attention away from the person who is talking. (Ahem, my dear husband, are you reading this?).
  4. Previous experiences. You might not notice it, but sometimes the other person’s speech reminds you of a situation you’ve faced, and you put all of your attention on what you did to resolve the challenge, or you find yourself preparing to tell the speaker about your experience before they are finished sharing theirs. In this case, you can be so absorbed in your own thoughts and concerns you can’t focus on what someone else is saying.
  5. Preoccupation. When you have a lot on your mind (who doesn’t these days?), you can fail to listen to what is being said. In these situations, you’re so busy concentrating on what you’re thinking about that you can’t hear the other person’s message. This might be particularly true when you feel stressed or when you are worried about something.

How to master active listening.

Active listening refers to a pattern of listening where you are engaged with your conversation partner in a positive way, listening attentively while some is speaking. When you are listening actively, you paraphrase and reflect back what is said and you withhold judgement and/or giving advice. Active listening makes the other person feel heard and valued, and it is the foundation for any successful conversation.

Here are some tips for helping you become a better active listener:

  1. Paraphrase what has been said. Rather than offering unsolicited advice or opinions, rephrase. You might say, “What I hear you saying is…”
  2. Refrain from interrupting. While the other person is speaking, don’t interrupt, and don’t prepare your reply while they are speaking. Be neutral and withhold judgment while listening as well.
  3. Watch your nonverbal behavior. Communicate to the speaker that you are attentive by your facial expressions, tone of voice, and other behaviors. Make eye contact, without “staring,” nod your head occasionally, avoid folding your arms, lean slightly towards the speaker…these behaviors signal to the speaker that you are listening attentively.
  4. Ask questions. Show interest by asking questions to clarify what was said. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the speaker. Avoid “yes” or “no” closed questions that tend to shut down the conversation.
  5. Learn from others. Consider watching television interviews and observe whether the interviewer is practicing active listening. Learn the “do’s” and “don’ts” from watching others in conversation.

A final word on listening.

Active listening is an important social skill that has value in almost every social setting. Practice this skill often and you will notice that it becomes easier for you. If you find it hard to engage in active listening, consider whether there might be something getting in the way, such as social anxiety or problems with inattention.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Build your team’s communication skills and active listening techniques with LaBarbera Learning Solutions’ research-backed online modules. Available topics include Active Listening for Leaders, Leading with Self-Awareness, and more.

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Dr. LaBarbera is a researcher, educator, and social work advocate who is passionate about sharing content that informs, inspires, and empowers individuals to achieve their greatest potential.

Seal Beach, CA

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