Attentive listening requires both cognitive and emotional processing: active listening and empathetic listening. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t very good at either one!

Active Listening is an important skill and yet, as communicators, people tend to spend far more energy considering what they are going to say next rather than listening to what the other person is trying to say now.

‘Active listening’ means, as its name suggests, actively listening; that is, fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the words of the speaker.

Active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to what the speaker is saying (auditory sense), ‘active listening’ also involves using the visual sense – watching the speaker closely with eye contact, following his or her hand gestures, following to the visuals as the speaker prompts. In some circumstances touch may be involved (be careful!). I’m not sure how smell and taste can be utilized in the listening process.

Active listening not only means focusing fully on what the speaker is saying but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening. Generally speakers want listeners to demonstrate ‘active listening’ in order to have feedback to what they are saying. Listeners can convey interest to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal ‘messages’ such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm hmm’ to encourage them to continue. By providing this ‘feedback’ the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly. (Well, honesty may be a relative thing.)

A Summary of Active Listening

Active listening can and should be used in casual conversations, but especially in professional conversations. The following points are essential for effective and active listening in work situations:
1. Arrange a comfortable environment conducive to the purpose of the communication, for example a warm and well-lit room with minimal background noise.
2. Be prepared to listen. Listening takes conscious effort.
3. Keep an open mind and concentrate on the main direction of the speaker’s message.
4. The speaker should not be stereotyped. Try not to let prejudices associated with, for example, gender, ethnicity, social class, appearance or dress interfere with or distract you from what is being said.
5. Avoid distractions if at all possible. This is ‘noise’ interfering with listening.
6. Don’t anticipate what

[you think] the speaker is about to say.
7. Do not dwell on one or two points at the expense of others.
8. Delay judgment until you have heard everything.
9. Be objective.
10. Do not be trying to think of your next question while the other person is still giving information.

Empathic listening involves attempting to understand the feelings and emotions of the speaker. The pre-requisite for empathetic listening is, empathy!

Empathy is the ability to see the world as another person does, to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state.

Empathy is largely dependent on high emotional intelligence, and even if you don’t have much of either, the good news is it can be learned if you are self-aware and interested.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy, it involves more than being compassionate or feeling sorry for somebody else – it involves a deeper connection – a realization and understanding of another person’s point of view. It also is enhanced with real experience: to have actually experienced the same situation as the other generates true empathy.

Empathetic listening is a selfless act – it enables us to learn more about the person we are dealing with and the nature of the relationship. Phrases such as ‘I understand what you are going through’ (if it’s true), accompanied by friendly supportive facial expressions, even touch, imply empathy – it helps form a state of connection with another person or group of people.

To listen empathetically you must try to put yourself into the speaker’s shoes and share their likely experience, thoughts and feelings. It requires patience, lots of patience. To listen empathetically you have to suspend your cognitive brain and resist driving to solutions while the other is still trying to get their story out. (This may be especially hard for men to do, apparently.) Empathetic listening is perhaps the most advanced of all communication skills. Even if you lack deep empathetic listening skills – as a therapist might – a little goes a long way.

So if you expect to communicate with tact and diplomacy hone your listening skills, active, and especially empathetic.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: