The Fine Art of Active Listening

How well-developed are your communication skills? The Carnegie Foundation claims that personal qualities account for 85 percent of the factors contributing to job success. The Harvard Bureau of Vocational Guidance, meanwhile, notes that 66 percent of people fired from their jobs were fired because they failed to get along with people (Edith Cowan University, n.d.). The truth is, you cannot not communicate. Whether you are saying something with words or merely making a face to express your feelings, you are communicating. Much of what we do as human beings – from how we hold our arms to the tone and pitch of our voice or even how close we stand to someone – is all a communication for those who know how to read it. The more competently you communicate, the better your chances are to be a positively contributing, functional member of any team you become part of. The average worker spends 50 percent of the day communicating, and one-fourth of all workplace mistakes are the result of poor communication (FEMA, 2014).

Good communication is essential in developing positive relationships and a productive career – especially in counselling. In this article, we explore one of the most important skills in interpersonal communication, and one that is often the Achilles heel of poor communicators: active listening.

The fine art of active listening

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (Steven Covey, 2016).

St Francis of Assisi prayed to understand rather than to be understood (Dwight, 2014). This is noble, yet it may be more work. While hearing is an involuntary, physical act, listening requires much more. It is hearing in combination with psychological involvement with the person who is talking. It requires a desire to understand another human being, an attitude of respect and acceptance, and a willingness to try to see things from another perspective, a different point of view. True listening requires concentration and energy, setting aside our own thoughts and agendas and suspending judgment and evaluation.

Inexperienced communicators may worry that, by merely “listening” (not bringing forward objections), they are somehow sending a message of agreement. In fact, when we listen attentively, without interruption, we are gaining information that is valuable to understanding the problem as the other person sees it. Whether or not we agree with another person’s perception, when we understand it more deeply, we hold the key to comprehending their motivation and behaviour. We can also see a potential path to agreement (Windle & Warren, n.d.). Competent communicators realise that listening is hard work. Good listeners, however, are often made, not born. We can all learn to become effective listeners. A major way we do this is by mastering the “micro-skills” of active, reflective listening: paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, reflecting meaning, summarising, and open que stioning.

The reflecting and summarising micro-skills of listening

The reflective listening skills we just named are crucial to the full and effective act of listening. We want to make a distinction between these and what we will call “attending skills” – that is, the kinds of minimal encouragers we use – such as a nod, an “um-hum”, or a “tell me more”, that signal to someone that we are available and ready to listen. These begin and maintain conversations. The reflective listening micro-skills, on the other hand, are specialised interventions that indicate that we understand what someone is trying to say. We use them to stimulate deeper exploration of a person’s perception of a problem or situation. Reflecting skills can also bring out meanings associated with a problem.

The functions of reflecting

Most statements people make have several levels on which we can understand them:

  • The level of facts and thoughts (a cognitive level)
  • The person’s underlying feelings (an emotional level)
  • The level of hidden meanings (an existential level) (Young, 2005)

When we use reflective listening skilfully, we can get at all three of these levels. Generally, reflecting consists of feeding back to the person their thoughts, feelings, and implied meanings in a condensed fashion, using our own words. Our reflected statement must show non-evaluative, nonjudgmental understanding. Using reflection skills serves four different functions:

  • Reflecting is a verbal way of communicating empathy. Acting with empathy means trying to “feel our way” into another person’s experience.
  • Reflecting is a form of feedback or a mirror. It enables the person to confirm or correct the impression he or she is giving. Even when we don’t get it totally right (say, the intensity may be wrong), we can still be said to be listening well, because our reflection helps the person to clarify, bringing us on board with what they intended to say.
  • Reflecting stimulates further exploration of what the speaker is experiencing. Accurate reflection functions like an opener, bringing out more facts and deeper feelings. Reflecting thus serves as a catalyst to bring just out-of-awareness aspects to consciousness.
  • Reflecting brings out important aspects of the message that otherwise might remain camouflaged. We hear first what someone says, but it may take several reflecting statements to work out what a given statement means to the person who said it (functions adapted from Young, 2005).

Let’s look now at the various types of reflections we can do.

Paraphrasing: Reflection of content

Reflecting content is a way of getting a clear picture of what is happening for someone. Paraphrasing is not a word-for-word parroting back to the person of everything they have said, nor a repeating back to them of their own words. Rather, it is a skilled process consisting of two steps: (1) listening carefully to what is being said and then (2) feeding back a condensed, nonjudgmental version of the facts and thoughts (Young, 2005).

When you start paraphrasing people, be on the lookout for these potential problems:

  • Interrupting the person’s flow with too many reflections or paraphrases which are too long.
  • Overusing certain phrases (for example: “You think . . .” or “I gather that . . . “). Apart from annoying the speaker, you run the risk of looking either like you have a very small vocabulary or are insincere.
  • Getting the intensity wrong. It is possible to paraphrase something with factual correctness but the wrong intensity, making either too weak or too strong of a reflection. For example, if the person says, “I’m irritated with the way my boss delegates work tasks”, you would be overshooting to reflect back, “You could wring your boss’ neck for giving you all the terrible assignments.”
  • Getting the language wrong. If you just “parrot” what the person said – repeating back to them in their own words – you are likely to annoy them. You need to express things in your own words in a manner that is comfortable to you (or, again, you will seem phony), but also appropriate to the person you are listening to.
    Being judgmental. This could happen, for example, if a co-worker happened to confide that she feels “overwhelmed” with the amount of work on her plate, and you reflect back something like, “I understand how it can feel like too much work when you do it so slowly.”
  • Difficulty in hearing what is said because of noise. Noise? What do we mean? Noise can be physical (e.g., a chain saw right outside the window), physiological (such as having hearing loss), psychological (a person who has trouble listening, for example, because he or she is closed-minded, having beliefs which differ from those of the speaker), or semantic (e.g., the interference that occurs when the person speaking is using a different language, dialect, or meaning system than the person listening: for example, the doctor that delivers the diagnosis in “medicalese” that the patient can’t understand) (AIPC, 2012).

Here are two examples of paraphrases:

Example 1 – Speaker: Two of my dear aunts died recently, and my brother moved out of country last week. I lost my job three months ago, and haven’t been able to find another one. I have been informed by the bank that they will start foreclosure procedures if I don’t start making mortgage payments again very soon. Listener: This is a huge time of loss for you.

Example 2 – Speaker: I have sought advice from four different doctors, including two specialists, about this problem. I’ve been to acupuncturists, naturopaths, and even a psychic to see how to heal it. I’ve read heaps of books on the condition, and even tried to change my diet so that I could feel better. Listener: You have tried everything you could think of to make this condition better.

Not surprisingly, it takes some practice to get paraphrasing just right. Reflecting feeling is different again.

Reflecting feelings

Lying beneath a person’s words, thoughts, and behaviours are feelings and emotions. The purpose of reflecting feelings back to someone is to make these implicit, sometimes hidden emotions clear to the person. Reflecting feelings is a powerful listening tool. Doing it with skilfulness also achieves the following aims. It:

  • Brings out the richness of the person’s emotional world
  • Helps people sort out the frequently ambivalent or conflicting feelings that they hold towards themselves and others with respect to a given issue
  • Grounds both the speaker and you, the listener, in basic experience (Ivey & Ivey, 2003).
  • It is easy to do the “headwork” of cognition and analysis. It may be tempting to run away from deeper feelings, and in the workplace and sometimes other contexts
  • it is not always appropriate to bring them out, but occasionally it may be just what is needed to cut through an interpersonal or decision-making impasse.

The comfort-engendering skill of reflecting feelings involves basically the same technique as paraphrasing, except that the focus is on feelings rather than on content and thoughts. Reflecting feelings involves expressing – again, in your own words – the emotions stated or implied by the person speaking. You can reflect feelings from both the verbal and nonverbal responses of the person. It is easy to underestimate how helpful a feelings reflection can be. It not only makes people speaking more aware of their emotions surrounding a topic, but also can deepen relationships and provide relief for those who have been struggling with conflicting emotions about an experience (this is true even when no action is taken on the situation/experience) (Young, 2005).

So how do you reflect feelings? First, it is important to distinguish between feelings and thoughts. In English, we often say, “I feel that ____”, followed by a phrase. What we mean is that we believe or think whatever is in the blank: for instance, “I feel that he is neglecting me” should really be stated as “I believe that he is neglecting me.” People often make this mistake. To express a feeling, the construction is “I feel _____”, followed by a feeling word: for instance, “I feel happy.” In reflecting a person’s feelings, we have a number of options. We can say, for instance: “You’re feeling happy”;
“You feel happy” or; “You’re happy.”

Sometimes, it can be helpful to link the reflection of a feeling to a reflection of content (paraphrase). Instead of merely saying, “You feel ___”, you may say, “You feel ___ (feeling) because ____” (reflection of a fact or thought). An example of this is: “You feel satisfied because your boss finally recognised all the effort you put in.” The person you are listening to may not have made the connection between the content and his/her feelings about it. As with the use of any single formula, however, overuse will signal to others that you are either unskilled or inauthentic, and possibly both. To accurately reflect the strength of a given feeling, you can study (or generate) a list of feeling words. Try to get words of strong, moderate, and weak intensity for e ach “feeling family” (Geldard & Geldard, 2005).

Here are two examples of reflection of feelings:

Example 1 – Speaker: “I’ve put my resume out just everywhere. It is registered on all the online sites, I’ve been to both the government employment centres and also had meetings with all the private recruitment firms. I have worn myself out looking for job ads in newspapers and online. I just don’t know what else to do to get a job!” Listener: You feel frustrated and discouraged that it seems so hard to secure employment.”

Example 2 – Speaker: I came home, and there they were: my partner and my best friend, together in my bed! I couldn’t believe it! And they both have seemed to be so concerned about all the pressure I’ve been under with this new job, asking me how I’m coping and what it’s like. Ha! Listener: You feel shocked and upset that two people so close to you could betray you like that.

Being able to reflect feelings back to people gives them enormous benefits, and also deepens the relationship between you. As with the reflection of content, you should aim for brief statements in your own words. You can use observation of both the nonverbal and verbal language of the person to formulate the reflection statements. Emotions are not always stated directly by people, who may feel ashamed of them, so reflection of feelings enhances others’ awareness.

Reflecting meaning

Have you ever observed a single event happen to several people, and noticed how differently people responded? Even seemingly insignificant incidents give a window of insight to the unique set of interpretations, values, and perceptions that make up a human psyche. One such incident occurred several years ago when two people, a man and a woman, were jogging up a hill in Caloundra, Queensland. A car came careening around the corner. As it passed the joggers and continued up the hill, it honked. Neither of the joggers could tell who was in the car, and thus did not know for sure why the car honked. The woman smiled and waved, as she assumed the car must contain someone whom she knew, or someone who just wanted to encourage her to make it up the hill. The man gave a scowl and made an obscene gesture. When asked later about the gesture, he responded that the occupants of the car “obviously&r dquo; thought that they were superior because they were in a car, while he was “only” on foot. He thus responded with the most immediate gesture of defiance that he could summon. Clearly, the man made very different meaning of the event than the woman.

We can do an excellent job in reflecting content and feelings, and still find that we have somehow missed the deeper significance of an event or an issue for someone. This occurs if we have not been able during our listening to elicit the deeper meanings that the person has assigned to events discussed. Reflecting meaning is an advanced skill for identifying and responding to the meanings behind what a person is actually saying. It is the peeling back of the onion to reveal the deeper layers, and it can only happen if we are able to provide a safe environment for the increasing depth of disclosure involved with meaning.

The most superficial layer is the content (facts and thoughts). People present much of that as they begin to speak with us. More trust is required in order for feelings to come through. The greatest depth is reached when focusing on the personal meaning attached to the content, but it is the riskiest level to engage at. There is often shame, fear, or humiliation lying underneath the feelings: hidden meanings which can only emerge through competent reflection of meaning, and sometimes intuitive hunches, on our part. And we say again: as with reflecting feelings, not all professional or workplace situations will facilitate this sort of deeper awareness, so there is always the evaluation on the part of you, the listener, as to whether engaging another person at this level of depth is feasible and appropriate. When it is, the enhanced awareness adds immeasurable value to relationships, team cohes ion, and problem-solving capability (AIPC, 2012).

Reflecting meaning is a way of re-stating for someone the personal impact and significance of an event or situation a person is describing. But how do we come to understand that impact and significance? Two factors work against us: first, everyone is an individual combination of influences, experiences, beliefs, and values, so we cannot know precisely how an event will affect a person. Second, meaning lies even deeper than feelings, and is therefore even harder to detect. Yes, it is there in what the person is saying to you, but more implicitly than obviously. Thus, reflecting meaning is a covert operation. You must read between the lines and even use your intuition if you would truly “get” the person. The better you know someone, the more on-target your hunches and trial meaning reflections will be. It is okay to make educated guesses. But sometimes, the meaning “at the hea rt of the onion” will only emerge with the patient application of content and feeling reflections, and your willingness to wait for the person’s readiness to disclose.

You can use the formula: “You feel ____ because ____” This is the same formula as that offered above for joining a feelings reflection to content, except that the second blank is an accurate reflection of meaning. The first blank is still an accurate reflection of feeling: for example: “You feel proud about this because being a good friend is such an important value for you.”

On occasion, you may wish to explicitly refer to the content (event, thought, or fact) that the person was talking about, so it will be useful to make a reflection incorporating all three: content, feelings, and meaning. It could look like this: “You were delighted (feeling) when you received your citizenship (content), because it meant that you could now participate fully in your adopted country (meaning).”

With the reflection of content, feelings, and meaning available, how do you know when to use each? Generally, you should aim for reflecting as deeply as possible. If you can only get down as deep as the feelings, you can reflect those, and wait until you know more before attempting a meaning reflection (Young, 2005).

Here are some more examples of meaning reflections. Assume that these exchanges take place not at the beginnings of the conversations, but somewhere in the middle, after the listener has been listening for some time:

Example 1 – Speaker: “I’m wondering what to do about my father. Ever since my mother died, he has been getting into a series of relationships with rather questionable women. So far, none of the liaisons has lasted very long, but at some stage, one of these gold diggers could just move in and commandeer his life. They don’t have to stay that long with the Matrimony Property Act to be able to walk away with half of everything he owns. All of my brothers and sisters are upset about this, because it affects us, too.” Listener: “You are concerned that your father’s desire for companionship could result in him being taken advantage of, which would affect you and your siblings financially.”

Example 2 – Speaker: “I worked so hard to get my dissertation done for my Ph.D. There was the stress of deadlines, plus the pressure to write it at a standard that was acceptable to the University. I had to factor in time for the lectures I was giving to undergraduate students, and I also served on several University committees. Now that I have finished and received the degree, I thought that I would be jumping for joy. Instead, I don’t know quite what to do with myself, or what to do next.” Listener: “Within the hectic pace of life as a graduate student, there was a sense of purpose for you. You feel deflated and lost without it, and wonder how to re-establish that.”

Reflecting meaning is one of the most difficult listening skills to learn. To do it, we must read between the lines, use intuition, and apply all that is gleaned to a full understanding of the person’s unique circumstance, life experience, and values, which occur in a particular context. The best way to uncover meaning is to persistently but patiently use nonverbal behaviour, basic attending skills (those minimal encouragers), and the reflection of content and feelings. Using these skills creates an environment in which the person feels safe to give the responses that allow their deepest meanings to be divulged (AIPC, 2012).

Summarising: Pulling themes together

Summarising is the final reflecting skill. Although it is not an advanced skill, we treat it here following on from exploring the reflection of content, feelings, and meaning, because you cannot usually use it in a somewhat extended conversation until you have made some paraphrases, feelings reflections, and reflections of meaning. Summarising skills include noticing what the person says (content), how it is said (feelings), and the purpose, timing and effect of the statements (process).

Summarising consists of bringing together in a single statement several ideas and feelings in order to show understanding. It is much broader, than paraphrasing a basic message. The basic idea is to pick out the highlights and general themes of the content and feelings (Brammer & MacDonald, 2003; Geldard & Geldard, 2005; Young, 2005; Windle & Warren, n.d.).

Re-capping a person’s ideas serves many purposes in a focused conversation:

  • Through summarising, we enable the speaker to absorb and muse on what he or she has been sharing, gaining an integrated sense of it;
  • The summary clarifies what the person has been saying, and puts it into an organised format so that he or she is better able to see a clear picture of the situation;
  • Summarising gives the speaker a feeling of movement in exploring ideas and feelings, as well as awareness of progress in learning;
  • Summarising helps finish off an interview in a natural way;
  • By focusing scattered ideas, summaries make way for new ideas;
  • Summaries help to reassure speakers that we have been listening all along;
  • Summaries serve as an effective check that we have perceived the full spectrum of messages from the person (Windle & Warren, n.d.; Brammer & MacDonald, 2003; Geldard & Geldard, 2005).

Examples of summarising:

Example 1: “You’re frustrated and angry that your performance appraisal did not result in a promotion. Being seen as a highly skilled professional is an important value for you.”

Example 2: “You feel anxious that the project deadline will not be met now that the team leader is in the hospital. To miss such an important deadline would be a serious breach of your high work standards.”

Questions: Not a reflecting skill, but an essential encourager

In addition to the reflecting skills, competent listeners know how to use questions in a conversation. Questions can help an interview to begin, and move it along smoothly. Questions can open up new areas for discussion, and issues can be pinpointed and clarified. The major functions of questions are to help the speaker to talk more freely and openly, to check perceptions, and/or to gain specific information. Your skill in questioning can help focus the speaker on the topic, encourage him or her to talk, and provide the person with the opportunity to give feedback. Your effective use of questions can help the speaker elaborate on an issue: tease out implicit aspects, guide how the person talks about the issue, and help open up – or close down – a conversation, as necessary.

The shadow side of questions

Questions are powerful, useful, and necessary. But they must be utilised sparingly, with great caution. The wrong sort of question can close speakers down rather than open them up. When responding to your questions, people talk within your frame of reference, not their own. Questions can potentially limit people’s sense of self-direction (Ivey and Ivey, 2003). And too many or poorly phrased questions can cause a person to feel interrogated rather than supported, encouraging socially acceptable answers rather than honest ones.

The following problems in using questions crop up frequently with beginning or unskilled listener-questioners:

  • Bombardment/grilling. Too many questions tend to put people on the defensive, especially if multiple questions are asked at once.
  • Statements masquerading as questions. Sometimes listeners make a statement in the form of a question which pushes their agenda or point of view. It is probably better to just be direct about the fact that a statement is being made, rather than try to disguise it as a question.
  • Questions inappropriate for some cultures. Members of some cultures receive questions, even rapidly asked questions, with ease, but in other cultures, receiving a number of questions promotes distrust of the person asking them. Also, there is often a power differential between speaker and listener in organisational settings; questions can imbalance the power even more, giving control to the question-asker.
  • Why questions. These may be necessary occasionally, but generally cause great discomfort, because many people remember being scolded or punished as a child after they were asked why questions.
  • Questions and control. Questions can be used unfairly and intrusively for the listener’s gain. If this happens, the relationship built by use of other listening skills is destroyed.

Questions can be either closed or open

Closed questions. These are questions that lead to a specific, often very short, answer. It may be an answer like “yes” or “no”. They have the advantage of focusing the conversation and obtaining information, but the burden of guiding the talk (and therefore the “power” or position of dominance) remains with the question-asker. Closed questions often begin with is, are, or do: for example, “Do you love your girlfriend?” “Is that why you came to see me?” “Are you employed?”

Open questions. In contrast, open questions cannot be answered in a few words. They encourage a person to talk, and provide maximum information. They persuade people to answer by giving them the opportunity to refuse. The person responding to an open question is given lots of scope, and “allowed” to freely divulge additional material, which enriches the response. Open questions often begin with what, how, why, or could and can facilitate deeper exploration of issues.

Examples of open questions are: “What is your relationship with your team members like?” “How did you come to this decision?” “Could you tell me more about your involvement with the digital project?” Open questions, by their nature, encourage people to talk about things that are interesting and meaningful to them rather than those that are so to the listener-questioner (Geldard & Geldard, 2005; Ivey and Ivey, 2003).

In summary

As we have seen, merely having a conversation with another person is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls until we learn essential listening skills. Good communication requires a lifelong process of skills refinement, which in turn demands patience, commitment and empathy towards others. But it comes with the greatest reward: longer, happier, and more meaningful relationships.


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