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Active Listening Skills

Humans typically listen in one of two ways:

  • Engaged critical listening. Where listening to the speaker, the brain is constantly engaged in the activity of summarising, evaluating and judging what the speaker is communicating.
  • Relaxed passive listening. This is the kind of listening we do when we are listening to a piece of music. The brain is relaxed and calm, absorbing every syllable of sound communicated without much intellectual engagement

He's not listening to you!Effective active listening is a half-way house between the above two approaches. Listening with a too critical approach can put you at risk of being caught up in your thoughts and not hearing everything that is said - missing out on important information. On the flipside listening with a too relaxed and passive approach puts you at risk of not thinking hard enough of what is being said and hence not fully registering and evaluating the information.

Active listening is an essential skill for skilled consultants. By developing active listening skills, you will improve the quality of your engagement with people- not just between you and your customers, but also in your personal life.  However, in listening, often it's easy to commit several faux pas without realizing it.

Do's and Don'ts of Active Listening

Avoid making judgments prematurely.  By jumping to conclusions before your client has a chance for you to hear him, you lock out potentially important information that could be delivered to you.  Don't draw conclusions about the person speaking-or about the things being said until you have all the facts.

Also avoid interrupting the client.  By remaining silent while she speaks, you can allow her to give you all of the information she wants to convey to you.  See how long you can refrain from interjecting.  You'll find you understand your client's perspective better this way.

Once your client is finished speaking, ask probing questions.  Probing questions seek to understand more about what was just said. Even if you can't come up with any questions, you can always ask your client to elaborate upon what was said by saying "Can you tell me more about that?" or "Is there any additional information?" By asking questions, you can help demonstrate to the speaker that you were indeed listening.

In addition to asking questions, it may be helpful for you to rephrase what your client has just said in your own words.  A statement like "Let me see if I heard you correctly..." or "I want to make sure I understand..." followed by a restatement of the main point can help you discover whether you were correctly comprehending what was said.

Sometimes when listening to others, our minds wander.  A great way to combat this problem is by cutting it short when you become aware of it. Any time you notice the mind wandering, make note of it and come back to the speaker in the present.  You will train your mind to not wander when others are speaking.

Role-play through the conversation.  If the conversation seems boring or trite, and you're having a difficult time listening, pretend you are an anthropologist - someone visiting a newly discovered village that is completely different from your experience.  You have to listen carefully to make sense of those living there.

Take responsibility when you misunderstand your client.  Quickly apologize and take action to quickly correct the mistakes. Make a note of the correction as well.  This way, you won't make the same mistake in the future.

Try repeating the words said by the speaker in your head.  This way you can help control that urge to allow your mind to wander.

Give your speaker feedback.  Try nodding occasionally and smiling.  Be sure that you are situated in an inviting position.  Don't cross your arms.  This way, as your client speaks, she knows that you are listening due to your posturing.

Finally, maintain visual contact with the speaker.  Much of what we say is not said with our words, but is said with body language.  Listen both to the words of the speaker and to the speaker's body language to get the full message of what he is conveying.

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