”Of course I am listening. I’m here, aren’t I?”

How many times have you heard or thought of that statement as you shuffled papers, looked at your phone or continued whatever you were doing while a friend, family member or co-worker waited for your attention? Active listening is much more than being present. Let’s take a look at what active listening is and how you can achieve it.

Active listening requires making eye contact, concentrating on what the speaker is saying, showing interest through posture and facial expressions, refraining from interrupting, keeping an open mind and paraphrasing to clarify the speaker’s intent when the speaker pauses or ends the conversation.

Following are six important skills and practices for active listening:

  • 1. Choosing to become a better listener requires effort. You, as the listener, decide that the benefits of active listening are worth the effort. In doing so, you set aside all physical distractions: books, papers, phone, whatever might distract you. The hardest part of preparing to listen is clearing your mind. You are actually giving control of the conversation to the speaker. That is sometimes difficult. Tell yourself that you are strong enough to be the good listener you want to be. Push thoughts of all other work away: appointments, calls, bills to pay, upcoming events, whatever is on your mind. Think about the person you are listening to. You are ready to receive information.
  • 2. Maintain eye contact. Look at the speaker. You don’t have to stare at the speaker. Briefly taking your eyes off the speaker is okay. Make eye contact again. You can even lean toward the speaker.
  • 3. As you listen to the speaker, open yourself to the message. This does not mean you agree with the speaker, just that you are willing to listen. Allow your facial expressions to reflect interest and acknowledgement of the message.
  • 4. Don’t interrupt the speaker. It is sometimes difficult to wait until the speaker is finished. Interrupting is a real killer when someone is opening up to you. You are telling the speaker that your point is so much more important than theirs that you simply have to shut them down. That is what you are doing. When you find yourself doing this, simply stop, apologize and let the speaker continue.
  • 5. When it is your turn to speak, be sure you understand the message. Paraphrase the salient points in the message and ask the speaker if you have understood the message correctly. If so, you can then respond. If not, repeat the message in your own words again. Do this until you are both agree on the message.
  • 6. If you can’t agree at the end of the conversation, remember that trust and respect take time to achieve. Over time and with more conversations based in active listening, you will build solutions together.

Finally, find out just how strong your active listening skills are. Gather a group of three friends and assign roles: speaker, listener, and observer. The speaker tells a 2-3 minute personal story, the listener listens and the observer watches for the key behaviors in being a good listener. When the speaker paraphrases the story, the speaker can accept or correct it. Either way, you will get a better assessment of your listening skills. It is only fair to repeat this exercise and let each of the three participants have a chance to play each role!

And remember, active listening is not relegated to adults. Listening begins in the crib and develops from there. Recently a friend related this story to me. Her 6-year-old granddaughter Ella’s teacher was reading to the class. When the teacher finished reading, she asked each student to tell her what the story was about. When it was Ella’s turn, she couldn’t tell her.

Ella confessed, “I was thinking about something else.”

About the author: Marilyn Jaquish is a 41-year resident of Traverse City. She served on the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center Board for nine years and currently serves on the TC Human Rights Commission, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of NM Board and the board of Woman2WomanTC. She is also faculty emeritus at Northwestern Michigan College.

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