Listening: Scientific ways to do it better

The last post I wrote was on listening…and how its not something I’m the best at.

I used some of the literature I have access to at school to distill with some ways people can be better active listeners. In general, listening centers around letting go of your own world view (even if its just temporarily) to be open to another person’s experiences.

First, there are some don’ts from Robertson (2005):

Don’t judge
This does include criticism, but it also includes encouragement. While encouragement (and negative feedback, as well) are good and useful things, proven to improve performance and self-efficacy, there are times when people genuinely just want to communicate how they feel or their experience. In these instances, one must try not to communicate approval or disapproval…just understanding.

Don’t offer solutions
I am incredibly guilty here. I love finding solutions to the problems…because it eliminates the problem and therefore the crappy feelings it creates, right?!?!
Not entirely. First, Carl Rogers (and others) have pointed out that when someone needs to talk, they have likely considered the problem for a long time and from multiple angles. When you offer solutions, you are (1) risking that they feel condescended to or like you don’t understand their frustration (if the solution were so easy, they would have thought of it). At the same time, you (2) are using your own past experiences to formulate a solution, which can make the person feel as if you are not focusing on understanding their side of the story.

Don’t avoid the issue
Often, when people bring concerns, issues, or worries to us, we are inclined to ameliorate their anxiety: “Don’t worry about it! You are sweating the small stuff. Those things are very unlikely/don’t matter.” Again, here, you risk misinterpreting their message or, worse, communicating that you don’t care about what they have to say. As someone who has some pretty frivolous anxieties here, I agree with the authors I read when they state that this sort of approach, though it has good intentions, is paternalizing at worse, and at best, denies the person their desire to communicate.


So…how DO you listen actively

Listen for more than content
Most people know that body language, tone of voice, tone of the conversation, and facial expressions count. You have to pick up on what Rogers and Farson (1957) called the total meaning of the message. “I’m so glad to see you!” said excitedly can communicate something very different form “*huff* I’m so glad to FINALLY see you!” said loudly.

Show you are following
A lot of people know that you can use nonverbal gestures (like nodding, leaning in, or having an “open stance” [not crossing your arms, for example]) to communicate that you are listening. Some have also heard about the importance of paraphrasing to “recap” or make sure you are understanding. Asking clarifying questions can also indicate that the message was received.

Something else you might do (though the data seemed to show there was little difference between groups that had speakers that did and did not do this) is show that you are keeping track. Writing notes was not supported by the data at all. However, recapping at the end or finding other ways to make sure you have gathered all of the listeners most pertinent points can be helpful (for example, maybe, at the end of the conversation, you might say, “Would it be helpful to you if I did X, Y, and Z to facilitate your access to the documents you need? It seems like they are the most problematic.”). This sort of falls in the camp of restating, but some authors differentiate this aspect. It shows not just that you’ve heard but that you remember.

Give the speaker time and space to tell their story
Be careful, however, of asking too many questions or paraphrasing too often. This interrupts the speaker, and may come off as ingenuine if done too frequently. Only ask questions you have carefully considered, and keep these interruptions to a select minimum.

Beware of “asking for help”
Sometimes, people may come to you asking for advice or solutions. However, they may just be looking for a venue to communicate. Thus, it is imperative to first given them ample time to explain their entire story, check your understanding with rephrasing or recapping, and asking about or rephrasing how they have stated they feel. If you are too quick to offer solutions, you run into issues cited above under “Don’t offer solutions”.


Rogers and Farson (1959) admit that listening this way can require you to change your attitudes about listening (that it is to understand the person’s world view, not find answers, value, or to articulate your own view eventually).

This takes time…and practice.

Citations to follow soon.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Releasing Control: Consulting, Strength in Tarot, Wesir from Kemet | Cards and Feather

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: