There is something replacing the art of conversation – and that is the art of listening. A number of psychologists and linguists have worked hard to find the balance of what makes a good listener. It seems active listening skills play a huge part.
Active listening skills can help you be a better communicator and problem solver. But what is it that makes a great listener and what is the sciencey “bit” behind the theories?
What are active listening skills?
Active listening is when you, as the listener, make more of a conscious effort to not only hear the words a person is saying but be able to understand the key messages the speaker is trying to communicate.
Active listening skills are particularly useful in a number of situations. For example, if you are dealing with a customer complaint and the customer needs to be an active listener who can empathise and fix their situation or issue. They can also be useful during a debate or in a meeting amongst colleagues.
Why are they important?
Science-backed listening skill 1: the need for belonging
We’ve all heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the very basic level is the need to belong – which is a major source of human motivation. A study by Baumeister & Leary (1995) further states that this need to belong forms as the need for connectivity to others from birth right through to adult life.
According to Baumeister & Leary, the way humans achieve that connectivity, and, therefore, their own belonging, is by frequent positive interactions with the same individuals and engaging in these interactions long-term.
Science-backed listening skills 2: sound interaction
One of the traits of active listening skills is using verbal cues, such as “I see” or “I know”. These short statements are more than just conversation fillers. They are an example of the frequent positive interactions that Baumeister & Leary’s study refers to.
Active listening skills rely on the other person to be listening very carefully and to enhance those skills. You need to let the other person know that you are fully engaged in what they are saying. Otherwise, you may risk losing their attention, or even their respect.
Put yourself in their shoes. Have you ever been in a situation where someone hasn’t been listening to what you were saying? How disappointed were you when they cut you off mid-sentence, or only went on to repeat something you just said in another context? How did you feel and how did you react?
Some studies, such as those by Van Baaren et al (2004), revealed that humans are more likely to mimic others with words and gestures as a way of seeking similarity. This mimicking is seen largely as a positive psychology. Social interactions like mimicking can also be evidence of a deeper engagement, which further helps put the speaker at ease that they are being listened to.
Science-backed listening skills 3: non-verbal interaction
Body language is also an important part of the active listening skills toolkit. In his Active Listening in Peer Interviews paper, psychologist Weger et al (2010) said that simply by listening, we are communicating. Therefore, lots of non-verbal involvement goes a long way, such as looking at your speaker whilst they are talking.
The importance of active listening skills in interpersonal relationships cannot be underestimated. Think about how you deal with customers or clients on a daily basis. Then, think about some of your own experience as a customer. Were you more engaged with someone you felt was listening to you? Equally, did you feel you had a good response from a customer after you dealt with their query?
According to a study by psychologist Carl Rogers, active listening is at the heart of every healthy relationship. Good listeners refrain from making judgements and provide a safe environment for their speakers. A good listener can also demonstrate they care about what the speaker is saying.
Rogers says: “when people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen themselves with more care and make clear exactly what they are feeling […] because listening reduces the threat of having one’s ideas criticised. The person is more likely to feel his contributions are more worthwhile [and] the result of listening is the change within the listener himself. Listening builds deep, positive relationships and tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener.”
If you would like to improve your active listening skills, try and practice the following:
Understand your speaker’s “need for belonging”. Try and listen for a message they are trying to communicate, rather than just hearing what they are saying.
Use verbal cues whilst they are speaking and paraphrase what they are saying. This way, you demonstrate you have understood them and, therefore, you have been listening. Whilst they are speaking, try and use other non-verbal cues, such as nodding and direct eye contact.
Developing active listening skills takes practice. But the good news is that it is possible to learn to be a better listener. Remember, listening is contagious. So the more you actively try to be a better listener, the more engaged people will be, both in their conversations with you and how they listen to you.