If we could all just learn to listen, everything else would fall into place. Listening is the key to being patient centered. Ian McWhinney
This paper intends to discuss the concept of ACTIVE LISTENING and its relevance not only for achieving effective communication but also as one of the most important coaching skills.
In this discussion, we will go through the different aspects of listening. We will analyze the significance of Active Listening, what are the required techniques and skills, and how to develop them. On the other hand, we will also analyze why it is so difficult for people to listen, and the barriers that people experience in the process. There will also be a review of the techniques and skills that active listeners possess. Finally, we will review active listening concerning the coaching field.
Listening involves hearing the speaker’s words, understanding the message and its importance to the speaker, and communicating that understanding to the speaker. The apparent problem is, of all the communication skills, listening is the earliest learned and the most frequently used, yet it seems to be the least mastered.
Listening is essential for communication. Being a good listener helps you see the world through the eyes of others, thereby opening your understanding and enhancing your capacity for empathy which is essential for having a good coaching relationship with our clients. However, as simple as listening to and acknowledging other people may seem, doing it well, takes sincere effort and lots of practice.
There are different levels of listening, but the focus of this paper will be Active listening, which requires that we listen not only for the content of the speaker’s message but more importantly, for the intent and feeling of the message as well.
Listening facilitates the development and maintenance of relationships and in coaching, it is critical to build trust and create a safe space for our clients. During sessions, coaches must spend most of the time listening, so it is a skill that must be learned and mastered. It is such a part of our everyday life and has such importance in our career that we should never take it for granted.
Active listening is a way of showing interest and curiosity, and that fosters cohesive bonds, commitment, and trust. If coaches listen to their clients, they will learn “what are their triggers for action.” When they know what their triggers for action are, they will be more effective at motivating them. And encourage them when they need encouragement.
This paper is going to examine not only how important listening is in our everyday lives but also how critical it is for us coaches to develop good active listening skills.
Background of Listening
Most people don’t listen as effectively as they think and probably don’t know it. While most people agree that listening is a very important skill, most people don’t feel a strong need to improve their skill level.
It is said that listening is the earliest communication skill acquired, the most often used, but the least mastered.
Typically, researchers separate listeners into three or four specific types or levels. All systems are slightly different in how they separate listeners but all offer a continuum from non-listeners to very deep listeners.
Newkirk and Linden (1982) present a system that examines three specific listening
types: time wasters, dissonance reducers, and active listeners.
Time wasters’ daydream, which is not bad itself, however, they can lose control and tune all speakers out. Dissonance reducers attempt to deal with the internal conflict they encounter from new information received, which is inconsistent with their existing attitudes. Active listeners listen with a greater degree of sensitivity. They must not only understand the content of the message but also the speaker’s feelings.
Another proposal of classification is the one brought by Hunsaker and Alessandra (1986) they put listeners in one of four general categories, according to the depth of concentration and sensitivity on the part of the listener. The four types are the non-listener, marginal listener, evaluative listener, and the active listener. As we move from the first, through the forth the potential for understanding, trust, and effective communication increase:
Non-listeners are primarily concerned with doing most of the talking; constantly interrupting the speaker, rarely interested in what the speaker has to say, and usually has the last word.
Marginal listeners are at the second level. At this level, listening is superficial as they are hearing the sounds and words but not listening. They tend to focus on the bottom line, the fact, rather than the main ideas. The speaker may believe they are being listened to and understood when in reality they are not at all.
Evaluative listeners actively try to hear what the speaker is saying, but isn’t making an effort to understand the intent. They tend to be more logical listeners, more concerned with content than feelings. The evaluative listeners form opinions about the speakers’ words even before the message is complete and risk not understanding the true meaning of the message.
Active listeners have reached the highest and most effective level of listening ( Hunsaker and Alesandra, 1986; Newkirk and Linden, 1982). Active listening requires listening not only for the content of the speaker’s message but more importantly, for the intent and feeling of the message as well.
Significance of Active Listening
So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it Jiddu Krishnamurti
Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and then repeats, in the listener’s own words, what he or she thinks the speaker has said. The listener does not have to agree with the speaker–he or she must simply state what they think the speaker said. This enables the speaker to find out whether the listener understood. If the listener did not, the speaker can explain some more.
Active listening has several benefits. First, it forces people to listen attentively to others. Second, it avoids misunderstandings, as people have to confirm that they do understand what another person has said. Third and which is the most important in the coaching practice, it tends to open people up, to get them to say more.
The ability to listen actively demonstrates sincerity, and that nothing is being assumed or taken for granted. Active listening is most often used to improve personal relationships, reduce misunderstanding and conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding. It is proactive, accountable, and professional.
Active listening requires intense concentration and attention to everything the person is conveying, both verbally and nonverbally. It requires listeners to empty themselves of personal concerns, distractions, and preconceptions.
There are many opinions on what is “active listening.” A search of the term reveals interpretations of the “activity” as including “interpreting body language” or focusing on something other than words.
About the coaching field, Active listening involves observing both the client and oneself. Observing the client includes listening to the client’s words, tone, observing their body language, and every aspect of interpersonal communications that will help to form the full picture of what they are saying, and what they are not saying. The second part of active listening depends on a self-aware coach who recognizes his or her filters, thoughts and reactions, one who does not allow those to influence the overall understanding of what the client is saying, and what the client may be thinking, feeling and/or not saying; in this sense, active listening is a way to demonstrate authenticity.
Coaching is about expanding people’s capacity to create the desired future. It is NOT TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO, but ASKING THEM to examine the thinking behind what they’re doing so it is consistent with their goals. Coaching is about giving people the gift of your presence, asking questions, listening Robert Hargrove. Masterful Coaching Field book ©2000 p52
Active Listening Techniques
Several active listening techniques assist people in utilizing their listening time to its fullest extent. According to Newkirk and Linden (1982), some of these techniques are paraphrasing, reflection, neutral technique, clarifying, and summarization.
- Paraphrasing: when the listener restate in their own words what the speaker means. This is valuable in testing the understanding of what the speaker means and lets them know they are being actively listened to.
- Reflection: is slightly different from paraphrasing; here the listener tells the speaker what they believe their feelings are rather than the content of the message. This is particularly important when the speaker expresses strong feelings.
- Neutral technique: encourages the speaker to continue talking. A simple nod of the head or an “uh-huh” are usually effective signals that the listener is interested in and listening to.
- Clarifying: is the technique used when the listener needs more information of a specific nature. It usually takes the form of a question.
- Summarization: Involves combining the speaker’s thoughts into a concise statement that focuses on the speaker’s key points. This is particularly valuable in a group discussion where several statements from different people need to be combined.
Skills that Active Listeners Posses
Hunsaker and Alessandra (1986) discuss three additional, very important skills that only active listeners possess. They are sensing, attending, and responding.
Sensing is the ability to recognize and appreciate the silent messages that the speaker is sending; that is facial expressions, intonation, and body language.
Attending refers to the verbal, vocal, and visual messages that the active listener sends back to the speaker acknowledging the speaker and their message. This also establishes a receptive listening setting, away from distractions, private without invading the speaker’s “personal space.”
Responding is when the listener gets feedback on the accuracy of the speaker’s content and feelings try to gather more information, attempts to make the speaker feel understood, and encourages the speaker to understand themselves, their problems, and concerns better.
How to Develop Active Listening Skills
There are some basic points that people can focus to learn to stimulate better understanding and become active listeners:
1) Turning off the internal voice.
Everyone has an internal voice that chatters away throughout everyday experiences, listeners must keep those moments of listening to their inner voice to a time when they are alone or relaxing. When they need to learn to develop their active listening skills they will need to concentrate on how they are listening to the other person.
2) Body Language.
While active listening, it remains essential that all vocal nuances as well as changes in the intonation of the speaker’s voice are captured. Often as part of a defense to the revelation of information truth, a speaker will leave clues that require an examination to respond accordingly. Similarly, body-language provides a way of uniting the speaker and listener. It is necessary to learn how to read and respond to it.
It is also important to learn how to avoid bad body language. Listeners should maintain eye-contact to show they are giving their full undivided attention. They should always analyze, through self-reflection and self-awareness, their use of body language as they actively listen. Postural echo will help speakers feel at ease therefore an increased communication flow will be promoted.
3) Affirmative Nods.
Listeners need to confirm that they’re following the flow of conversation by placing nods of confirmation at the appropriate cues in the conversation. Developing active listening skills utilizes this body language to great effect allowing speakers to continue talking without disrupting their communication flow. This is key to developing active listening skills.
4) Paraphrasing to show understanding.
Paraphrasing remains an essential part of developing active listening skills. When paraphrasing listeners are summarizing what the other person has just said. This active feedback loop has the effect of reconfirming to the listener that the listener has understood everything they’ve said and in its unique context. Developing active listening skills however should not be seen as a chance to second-guess the speaker’s next words. Everybody would agree that it’s regarded as downright rude to guess the next words the speaker will mention. As another negative side to developing listening skills, it also shows that listeners are trying to speed-up the conversation. Listeners always need to remember to speak as little as possible, putting themselves in a controlling position. They must ensure that they are giving the speaker the greatest opportunities to develop their thoughts as well as ideas.
5) Expressing a natural state of empathy.
Showing a genuine sense of empathy helps individuals feel not only relaxed as well as comfortable, but also that listeners care. Through the presentation of an active genuine expression of empathy to the speaker, the listener will win their heart and mind. Facial expression as well as gentle words help show that they feel concerned over their discourse. Developing active listening skills requires the listener to analyze their position within the conversation. It remains essential that they understand how they “come across” as they listen. At first, it may feel stifled but as active listening skills are developed, they’ll soon find that the marriage between using hearing as well as body language becomes almost natural.
It takes a lot of concentration and determination to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break, and if listening habits are as bad as many peoples are, then there’s a lot of habit-breaking to do!
Active Listeners must be deliberate and remind themselves frequently that their goal is to truly hear what the other person is saying. They need to set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message
Why is it so difficult for people to become Active listeners?
Active listening is not an easy skill to acquire. It may require changes in basic attitudes. To be effective at all in active listening, people must have a sincere interest in the speaker. Developing an attitude of sincere interest in the speaker is thus no easy task. It can be developed only by being willing to risk seeing the world from the speaker’s point of view.
Active listening carries a strong element of personal risk. If listeners manage to accomplish what it is being described here: deeply sense the feeling of another person, understand the meaning his experiences have for him, to see the world as he sees it; listeners risk being changed themselves. It is threatening for the listener to give up, even momentarily, what they believe and start thinking in someone else’s terms. It takes a great deal of inner security and courage to be able to risk them in understanding another.
People are so accustomed to viewing themselves in certain ways (seeing and hearing only what they want to see and hear) that it is extremely difficult to free from the need to see things in these ways. To do this may sometimes be unpleasant, but it is far more difficult than unpleasant.
Carl Rogers stated that the natural tendency to evaluate from the listener’s frame of reference and approve or disapprove of what another person is saying is the major barrier to successful interpersonal communication. He felt this was particularly the case when the topic was linked to strong emotions.
One of the reasons people are not good at listening is because they do not listen. Listening skills start with paying attention.
Coaches must be aware of their filters, judgments, reactions, and thoughts; and acknowledge the presence of these potential distracters; then consciously choose to set them; this allows a focus wholly on the client. Client-centered psychology contends this is done by listening without judgment or bias, filtering the client’s words with unconditional positive regard, with belief that the client knows his/herself best, is critical to establishing trust (Silsbee, 2004; Wilkinsky, 2006).
Listening barriers may be psychological (e.g. emotions) or physical (e.g. noise and visual distraction). Cultural differences including speakers’ accents, vocabulary, and misunderstandings due to cultural assumptions often obstruct the listening process.
There is also a human natural tendency to evaluate and judge. Sometimes people get so busy criticizing what the other person is saying that they don’t hear them. Frequently, the listener’s interpretations, attitudes, biases, and prejudices lead to ineffective communication.
Active Listening and Coaching
One of the ICF’s Core Competencies for coaching is Active Listening which in the coaching environment is defined as:
the ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support client self-expression.
But why is Active listening such an important skill that coaches should have? 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 the most effective agent for individual personality change and group development.
Coaching is about supporting the client to move from where they are to where they want to be; and since listening brings about changes in people’s 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.
When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking.
Besides providing more information than any other activity, listening builds deep, positive relationships and tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener.
The proper use of active listening results in getting clients to open up and building trust. In the coaching context, benefits include increased client confidence which allows them to be themselves and it improves the outcomes of the coaching relationship.
Active listening is a specific communication skill. It shows the other person, both verbally and nonverbally that the listener is truly interested.
Active listening is more than just paying attention, active listening is a specific communication skill, based on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, which involves giving free and undivided attention to the speaker.
In the coaching field, Active listening is a dynamic commitment to understanding how clients feel and how they see the world. It means putting aside coaches’ prejudices and beliefs, anxieties, and self-interest so that they can step behind their client’s eyes and envision their perspective.
ICF-certified coaches must learn and master the practice of Active Listening to gain complete learning and understanding about their client(s). Active listening allows the client to vent the situation and then move on to the next appropriate steps.
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