Imagine you've got a colleague or friend who needs to get something difficult off their chest. How do you get them to open up?
Active listening is a way of listening which helps people talk through their problems, however difficult to put into words they find it.
It sounds a strange idea. Listening actively? Surely, when you listen, you don't actually do anything?
With active listening, although you actually do some talking, you're really acting as a sounding board.
Whatever you say doesn't influence what the other person has to say. It just helps them talk.
Active listening to keep them talking
All too often, we say things which lead conversations down dead ends. 'I know just how you feel', 'Try not to worry about it'.
Although they're meant well, they don't encourage the person you're speaking with to go on. Rather, they tend to wrap up what the other person was saying.
With active listening, you avoid this. Here are some suggestions to help you actively listen in a conversation:
1. Ask open questions
Rather than asking questions which only require a yes or no answer, try and ask open questions.
For example, instead of saying: 'Has this been going on a long time?', ask 'How long has this been going on?'.
That way, instead of closing the conversation down into a yes or no response, you open it out and encourage the other person to keep talking.
Another good example to remember is instead of saying “is everything ok?” you can ask “how are things going?”.
This helps to show that you've listened to, and understood, what's been said.
For example, 'So you're feeling very stressed by your work, but you still love your job.'
Repeating back a word or phrase can encourage people to go on.
If someone says, 'So it's been really difficult recently,' you can keep the conversation going simply by repeating 'Difficult…'.
We all skirt around or gloss over the most difficult things.
If we can avoid saying them, we will. If the person you're speaking with glosses over an important point, saying 'Tell me more about…', or '…sounds a difficult area for you' can help them clarify the points, not only for you, but for themselves.
It sounds obvious, but a 'Yes', 'Go on', or 'I see' can really give some much needed encouragement.
You don't have to be completely neutral. If whoever you're talking with has been having an absolutely dreadful time of it, some sympathy and understanding is vital.
'That must have been difficult', 'You've had an awful time' – this really helps.
All of this sounds quite simple. And it is.
All you're doing is listening, and from time to time giving responses which encourage the other person to keep on talking.
That's often the key – get them to keep on talking.