Active Listening

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Really listening...Definition Active Listening? Meaning.

When people talk to each other, they do not necessarily listen. The purpose of active listening is to improve mutual understanding through carefully absorbing what the other has said.

Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others, focusing attention on the speaker. Suspending one's own frame of reference, suspending judgment and avoiding other internal mental activities are important to fully attend to the speaker.

Active listening requires 3 things:

  • Comprehending (a shared meaning between the parties in the communication)
  • Retaining (remembering what was communicated)
  • Responding (verbal or nonverbal responses from the listener to show the message is being listened to)

Effective Communication

Besides poor listening, 4 more factors are known to prevent good communication and understanding what the other person means:

  1. Subject Complexity

    • Is the subject matter new or does the listener has experience with it?

    • Is the subject matter difficult to understand, or simple?

    • Is the subject matter interesting and important to the listener?

  2. The Speaker

    • Is the speaker experienced?

    • What are the non-verbal cues of the speaker?

    • What frame of mind is he or she?

    • How personable, threatening, intelligent, etc.?

  3. The Presentation

    • Is the information illustrated with visuals?

    • Is technology used effectively?

    • Is the information introduced logically?

    • Are concepts introduced incrementally, with examples?

  4. The Environment

    • Is the environment conducive to listening?

    • Can the listener interact and exchange information with the speaker?

    • Are there distractions that can be avoided?

Using Active Listening

According to Zenger and Folkman (2016), "People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight".

Active Listening is obviously a particularly important skill for coaches, mentors and leaders and managers. Van Quaquebeke and Felps (2016) draw on Theory of Human Needs (McClelland) and Self-Determination Theory of Human Motivation (Deci and Ryan) and argue that when leaders are asking open questions combined with attentive listening, a practice they call "respectful inquiry", such practice principally satisfies followers' basic psychological needs for competence (feeling challenged and experiencing mastery), relatedness (feeling of belonging), and autonomy (feeling in control and having options)."

Carl R. Rogers and Richard Evans Farson, "Active Listening", Chicago 1957
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: "What Great Listeners Actually Do", HBR Jul. 2016
Niels Van Quaquebeke and Will Felps, "Respectful Inquiry: A Motivational Account of Leading Through Asking Questions and Listening", Academy of Management Review Vol. 43, no. 1, Jul. 2016, pp. 5-27

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