The Art of Active Listening

Introduction

Active listening is defined as a therapeutic skill that involves listening attentively and responding empathically, so a client feels heard (Levitt, 2001). This topic is not very new, and there is a vast amount of sources that already cover the topic. So, why yet another post about it?

First of all, science shows that the usage of active listening has a positive effect on “the recipient’s perception of feeling understood compared with other response strategies”, which are advice and minimal feedback (Weger et al., 2014). So from my point of view, active listening is a general skill that everybody, not only therapists, leads, or people in similar positions, should have. It is a general skill that improves nearly every interaction between human beings. So, why not learn it if it helps not only you but also others?

Second, I want to put an emphasis on some facets of active listening that I value as meaningful while also adding some background knowledge.

Methods

Open questions

Open-ended questions such as “Where do you want to be in five years?” or “What do you think is the best option to react?” cannot be answered with a simple “yes”, “no” or a short phrase. They need more space in order to give an appropriate answer. This freedom comes with additional benefits: 

First, a lower reactance (a post about this reactance will come soon). In short, reactance is the emotional response and arousal to the perceived limitation of alternatives and the ability to choose. One of the possible consequences of reactance is persistence to persuasion and taking the opposite side of the speaker’s opinion or goal. Open questions avoid this reaction because they give the person the freedom to answer in any intended way. 

Second, open questions are an elegant solution to guide and direct a conversation without taking any position or looking suggestive. You’re leading the conversation through questions.

Third, the response of the listener reveals what is most important to him/her and is more detailed. Especially closed questions – questions that can be answered by yes, no, or a short phrase – are likely to miss relevant information that could have been revealed with an open question.

Prefer Statements Before Questions

This concept is mostly coming from the concept of motivational interviewing. In the role of a therapist, a leader, or a similar position, we tend to follow-up with questions. However, one possible result is that two roles, the person that is asking and the one that is answering, manifest throughout the conversation. This might end up defensive or reactive conversation styles instead of open and active behavior because the situation feels like some sort of interrogation or dysbalanced discussion.

A statement that does not end with a question mark, however, leaves an open space where both parties can follow-up. This flattens the conversational hierarchy, and it is more likely that you will have an active instead of a reactive conversation. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to ask any questions – where are not in a therapeutic situation. It is just being aware of this fact and using it as a tool. For illustrational purposes, you will see that the examples in the following chapters are always statements instead of questions. 

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing means that you repeat the just heard with different words while shortening or aggregating the information. This has two effects: First, the abstraction of the information functions like a communication check: Did I understand the information correctly? Are we both on the same page? Second, a clear statement allows you to guide and shift the conversation in a certain direction. There are several facets that help you generate a deeper understanding of the situation for both sides:

Continue the Thought

Based on your background knowledge and experience, you pick up the core thought or emotion and make an assumption of how the next sentence could look like.

Examples

“Everybody behaved completely differently in the
last meeting.”

“And you are asking yourself if something happened
since the last meeting or if you said anything wrong.”


“Yesterday, I forgot to write an important email
to one of my partners.”

“And you’re worried that this could
slow down the processing of the contract.”

Differentiate Feelings

There will be cases in which you will hear phrases that comprise several feelings at once. However, this might not be clear to the speaker, and you can help that person to reach a better and holistic understanding of the situation.

EXAMPLES

“That meeting got completely out of
control – I didn’t know what was happening!”

“You are afraid of the consequences and worry
about your authority within the team.”


“That client insulted me again!
I wanted to scream and cry at the same time.”

“You are angry at the client and sad that you
were absolutely helpless because you need the deal.”

Four-Sides-Model: Select a Certain Channel

The Four-Sides-Model from Schulz von Thun states that a message that is sent from a sender to a receiver always comes with four different facets of information. Click here to look at a spotlight that I wrote on this topic.

Knowing the four sides of a message helps you to guide the conversation in a certain direction. It depends on the situation, your information, and the goals that you are having.

EXAMPLE

Imagine your employee approached you in a One-on-One with the following phrase:

“The whole team doubts that we can finish the project until the deadline.” 

Depending on your goal and situation, you could pick a certain channel to respond:

Appeal: “You are wondering if I could talk to the team about this topic.”
The person is new in the role of a leader and asks implicitly for help.

Factual information: “What do you think is the cause?”
You want to go straight for the origin of the problem.

Self Revelation: “It is important to you that the team is treated in a fair way.”
De-escalate the topic.

Relationship: “Thank you very much for this insight. I admire your honesty.”
The person is new to the team and is not sure if it is good to be that honest to you.

Differentiate Feelings

The differentiation of feelings describes the expression of latent or “deeper” emotions that are between the lines of a message. This might not be applicable to every situation in a working environment, but there are situations – especially in conflict management – where this method helps to clarify all emotions that are involved. A hidden emotion might stand for a motivation that hasn’t been expressed before but is driving the conversation in a subtle way.

EXAMPLE

“One of my clients refused to work with me.”

“This makes you angry and also a little bit sad.”

Further hints for active listening

Accept breaks

Breaks during a conversation are essential and part of the conversation. They provide room for your counterpart to think and digest the information and situation. 

You will see that your counterpart will provide additional information or will take the lead from here with a question on his/her own, which breaks the interviewer’s/interviewee’s situation into a more dynamic conversation.

Short reflections

Keep paraphrased and reflective summaries short. They shouldn’t be longer than what your counterpart said. It should summarize the information to the relevant points.

Stay Focused

The rise of laptops, tablets, and smartphones made it very easy to become distracted or to make notes while a person is listening. However, just put yourself into the following position: You are talking about a serious topic, and you had to fight with yourself to raise the topic – and the person you are talking to is typing. You will feel less heard, and further communication will be less open.

So, to make it simple: Avoid making notes on an electronic device at all. Use a pen and paper and make notes only in breaks and not while somebody is speaking. If you’re summarizing and paraphrasing correctly, notes should become obsolete anyway. 

Sources

Levitt, D. H. 2001. Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one micro-skill in beginning counselor training. The Clinical Supervisor, 20: 101–115. doi:10.1300/J001v20n02_09

The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions
Harry Weger Jr. ,Gina Castle Bell,Elizabeth M. Minei &Melissa C. Robinson

Appendix

Ted Talk from Julian Treasure


Spotlight: Four-Sides-Model

The Model

During my studies in psychology, I had the honor to visit the lecture of the German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun. He was the first one in a row of experts to influence my perception and thinking of human communication. Schulz von Thun developed the Four-Sides-Model which had a huge impact on my view on inter- and intrapersonal communication since then.

The Four-Sides-Model states that communication consists of a sender (sending a message), a receiver (receiving a message), and a the message. The message itself has one additional layer that can be divided into four sides:

Continue reading “Spotlight: Four-Sides-Model”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part I

Introduction

The most devastating moment I had as a leader was in my first year as a teacher at the University. I had a class of 30 students, and one of them wasn’t paying attention and kept distracting the others for several days in a row now. After one of the seminars, I took him to the side and told him that I found his behavior disrespectful. It was the first incident of this kind for me, and before I noticed, I held a tirade about motivation and respect for five minutes. When I finished, his only response was: “My mother is in the hospital for two days, and the doctors are not sure what the next days are going to look like. I came to the class to get some distraction. I am sorry that I wasn’t able to focus for the last days and that I distracted the other students.“

Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part I”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part II


You already had the feeling that something was wrong for the last two weeks but you decided to wait for the next One-on-One to describe your feeling. Fortunately, your team member addresses the topic proactively already right at the beginning of your session:

Employee: “I don’t think that I can learn a lot on the team anymore, and I am not sure how to continue.”

You: “Thank you very much for your openness.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean?”


Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part II”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part III

The difference between the Explore and Specify stage is that in the Explore phase, your questions are more general, whereas the Specify stage wants to investigate certain topics deeper. The methods in this stage are:

  • Ask for Examples
  • Specify Generalized Locations and Time Points
  • Active Listening
  • Ask for the Top 3 Situations
Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part III”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part IV

During the One-on-One, you will realize that you are not able to connect all received information with each other — some might be even contradictory. Your task is to order and connect this information in the correct way by interacting, reflecting, and asking. Just keep in mind that problems might seem simple from the outside but are complex from a subjective point of view because there are so many layers involved: Social dynamics, emotional states, feelings, goals, insecurities about the degree of honesty when talking to your lead, company culture, just to name a few.

Communication is always imprecise. It is very easy to get lost, and as stated earlier, your task as a leader is to help and guide. So be open, be honest, and ask if you do not understand how two topics fit together — maybe your counterpart doesn’t know either and you are just helping to disentangle another layer. If you really care about him/ her and if you really want to understand the problem, then you will be automatically generating more trust and more openness to your questions and feedback.

Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part IV”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part V

I know, I know, the urge is enormous to finally tell your employee what you would do to solve the problem and move right away to the Act stage. But ask yourself: Do you want a sustainable action plan, or do you just want to have something written on paper? Keep on reading this chapter if you prefer the first, move forward to Act the act if you want the latter.

The solution becomes quite clear in many of the cases if you were able to get to the problem’s core. Well defined goals and actions that are all pointing into the direction of solving the initial problem are an excellent base. However, there is another relevant factor that drives the success of your initiatives: Motivation

Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part V”

How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part VI

You finally did it! All necessary information has been collected, and both of you were able to define how a solution to the problem could look like. Excellent job! The final but most important steps are about to come: Without execution, everything the two of you just achieved might be worth nothing. Now it is time to clarify expectations and plan follow-up meetings.

Expectation Management

What is the goal, and who does what until when? Writing down the goals, planned actions that serve the goal, owners, and due dates clarify the situation. Clean expectation management into both directions, the employee and the lead provide clarity and security.

Continue reading “How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part VI”