Communication problems are one of the biggest sources of relationship conflict and they can become so serious that complete relationship breakdown results. Often people don’t listen attentively to one another. Active listening is not about agreeing with someone, it is simply about understanding what the other person is trying to say.
It is a structured approach to establishing true understanding in communication yet it can be conducted in a relaxed and informal way so that it flows naturally from the conversation itself. It involves listening, questioning and rephrasing to ensure that the message received is the same as the one intended to be given.
The most important aspect of communication lies not in the speaking, but surprisingly in the listening. This is because that all perception is subjective and every word that we hear is filtered through our personal beliefs and values. Consequently, we can place an emotional meaning on an exchange that is unintended by the speaker.
When we decide to listen actively to someone’s words, we are choosing to be objective and distance ourselves from our own automatic responses. The way we hear someone, can have more to do with us than with the other person. Active listening, therefore, promotes both focused attention and objectivity.
Communication is a two-way process. However, whereas the speaker assumes that the listener is hearing what he intends to say, the listener has the power to clarify meaning and control the exchange. Unfortunately, people often are only half listening to a conversation and are distracted by other things. When they are listening carefully, they are biased in how they hear. No wonder, then, that interpersonal communication is a major problem area for people. We all have different ways of looking at the world and different experiences which can interfere with how we ‘read’ another person and interpret what is being said.
Active listening is the process of focusing on what the speaker is saying and then saying it back in one’s own words to ensure that accurate communication has occurred, i.e. “This is what I heard you say, is this correct?” Active listening encourages mutual understanding. A listener who is practicing active listening can also mirror back to the speaker the emotions that they think he or she is conveying by their words, attitude and body language.
For example, an active listener might say to a speaker “I get the sense that you felt humiliated when …” This allows the speaker to either confirm or deny this or clarify their position further. By mirroring emotions as well as rephrasing the words, the listener can create a strong sense of rapport with the other person by demonstrating empathy and a genuine desire to understand.
There are clear benefits to using active listening skills to enhance interpersonal communication and minimize conflict. Firstly, active listening requires that you actually pay close attention to what the other person is saying. You cannot half listen to someone and at the same time be thinking of something else and expect to understand the other person’s intentions.
So by practicing active listening you choose to deliberately focus your attention on what someone is saying and how they are saying it. Secondly, active listening helps to avoid misunderstandings. The very practice of expressing back to someone what you believe they have said and even how you believe they are feeling about the topic can prevent misinterpretation. Finally, active listening encourages openness and trust because the genuine intention of the hearer is to actually understand the intention of the speaker.
Interpersonal conflict involves a great deal of miscommunication. Each party can contradict the other person’s interpretation of words and events while being equally confident that they are right and the other person is at the least mistaken, and at the most a liar. It is no wonder that such attitudes trigger defensiveness in the other person causing them to either fight back or stop trying.
The way that we perceive other people and what they are attempting to communicate to us is central to the success of our relationships. Once we understand that as listeners we have a large part to play in the success of the communication process, we realize the power of active listening to improve our relationships and change our lives. When both parties to a conversation commit themselves to the process of active listening, conflicts can be resolved and relationships can be strengthened.
Active listening can be used for all forms of interpersonal communication. It can improve communication in the workplace and thus enhance your career. It can also be used to enhance personal relationships at all levels. You can learn active listening skills easily and improve them by practicing. The benefits of doing so will be enormous.