Are you listening?

Are you listening?

There is an ancient riddle that goes something like this, “If a tree falls in the forest, where nobody is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” The answer to this riddle is that sound is a human experience, if somebody is listening, it’s sound. Otherwise, it’s just vibrations in the air caused by movement. Similarly, in our everyday lives, there is a lot of communication happening, whether it’s phone calls, emails, telephonic or face-to-face conversations. The question is, how much of it are we listening to? A lot of times we may hear what’s being spoken, but are we really listening?


Active listening is a soft skill just like critical thinking or problem solving but it’s difficult to master. One of the reasons why it is difficult to learn is that since our childhood we have been taught how to talk but nobody ever really taught us how to listen. Yet, active listening is one of the most critical skills to be learned, whether it’s school, work, or home. While at work, it may mean fewer errors and less time wasted, at home it may translate into better relationships with partners and kids. 


Active listening involves listening not just with ears but with all the other senses too. When one engages in active listening, they have to “appear” to be listening too. So what are the signs of active listening? 

Non-verbal signs of active listening


  1. Face the speaker and make eye contact- It is important that when listening, you face the speaker and not be distracted by your mobile or your laptop. Eye contact is an encouraging sign for the speaker. While too much of it may intimidate the speaker, if used with smiles and pleasant facial expressions, eye contact can communicate effective listening.


  1. Posture- Posture can communicate a lot about the speaker as well as the listener’s intentions. An active listener may lean forward while listening indicating interest. Also, the hands and feet must be kept still. Constantly moving hands or feet may be distracting for the speaker. Further, nodding your head is also a good way to tell the speaker that you are paying attention.


  1. Mirroring- Automatic reflection of the speaker’s facial expressions can be interpreted as a sign of active listening. Attempting to consciously mimic the facial expressions of the speaker indicates engagement with the speaker.


  1. Avoid distractions- This is the biggest challenge in the current times with remote working and constantly being surrounded by devices. It is very important to refrain from fidgeting, constantly looking at the watch, doodling, or constantly using your mobile or laptop when someone is talking.


Verbal Signs of active listening


  1. Ask questions- Asking questions can really tell the speaker that you are listening. But use questions sparingly, the speaker shouldn’t get the feeling of being interrogated or shouldn’t become defensive. But asking clarifying questions is a good way to ensure clear communication. 


  1. Wait for the speaker to finish before you talk- Often we feel that if we don’t speak what’s in our mind, we may forget it later. But that may be a really rude thing to do if you speak when someone else is already speaking. So a good way may be to make a note of it somewhere and talk after the speaker is done.


  1. Paraphrasing and clarification- After an important point has been made, paraphrasing might not only communicate to the speaker that you have been paying attention, but also clear any differences in understanding. Further, using open-ended questions to clarify may even help in getting more information from the speaker.


  1. Remembering- Remembering a few key points like the name of the speaker, small details, ideas from maybe a previous conversation show to the speaker, your interest in the conversation. These go a long way if you have recurring conversations with the speaker.


  1. Giving feedback and picking on the speaker’s non-verbal cues- Sometimes, you may need to give feedback to the speaker to show that you understand. Use of phrases like “I understand it must be difficult” or “Oh! That sounds exciting!” can tell the speaker you feel the same way as them and exhibits empathy. At other times an occasional “hmmm” or “uh” may also suffice.


Also, when listening, we must remember that words contain only a fraction of the message. Apart from written communication, the speaker may drop many nonverbal cues during an interaction like the tone of the voice, the pitch, the volume, facial expression, or general posture. Identifying those and responding to those may make for a very effective conversation.


Just like any other art, active listening requires practice but once learned it can open doors to not only effective conversations but lasting relationships!