Key skills: Listening Skills

by Prof David Clutterbuck

Listening to another person is one of the most powerful things you can do for another person. It shows others that you value and respect their contribution and are willing to give time to help them think. By listening actively you can help grow someone’s confidence and encourage him or her to talk.

However, active listening is a skill that takes requires time and effort to develop and for many people is something that needs to be relearned and practised frequently, if they are to be effective at it.

What do active listeners do?
• Free their mind of their own ideas and thoughts, particularly in the area of what they are going to say next.
• Are committed to listening – which requires discipline, since we think at a quicker rate that the speed at which we talk.
• Suspend judgements and Do not make assumptions about what the other person is going to say.
• Are relaxed and attentive, signalling their attention and availability both verbally and non-verbally.

Three techniques that can help listeners
1. Showing interest
− Making eye contact
− Using body language — for example, facing them, being relaxed, but still, leaning forward enough to demonstrate concentration
− Minimising distractions
2. Requesting information
− Using open questions to seek information
− Listening for hidden information – what is not said
− Giving encouragement
− Suspending judgement
− Using silence, giving time for people to find the words
3. Obtaining understanding
− Paraphrasing
− Summarising
− Reflecting back feelings as well as information

How to improve your listening skills?
Amongst the many influential writers on effective listening, some that stand out are Nancy Klein (author of Time to Think) and Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees (authors of Clean Language).

In her book Time to Think, Nancy Klein identifies the following ten components of what she describes as a thinking environment:
1. Paying attention – listening with respect, interest and fascination
2. Asking incisive questions – to challenge assumptions that block the quality of thinking ideas; keeping the focus on questioning rather than on speaking
3. Equality – treating each other as thinking peers, by taking turns in speaking and by maintaining boundaries, such as personal space
4. Appreciation – typically a five to one ratio of appreciation to criticism
5. Ease – giving the other person the sense that you have time for them
6. Encouragement – not feeling you have to compete with them for air time; using body language that encourages the other person to talk
7. Feelings – Recognising the place of emotion and expressing emotion as a key part of the conversational exchange; using emotional release to maintain the quality of thinking
8. Information – Enquiring sufficiently to understand the issue from the other person’s perspective
9. Place – Creating a physical environment that reinforces mutual regard
10. Diversity – Using difference as a positive factor (a source of interest in the other person rather than a reason to be wary of them)

By staying aware of these ten points and actively working towards them you will not only enable someone to do their best quality thinking, but allow yourself the opportunity to offer best quality listening.

Twelve tips to improve your listening
The tips below come from the book Clean Language, by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees.
1. Put your attention on what the other person is actually saying rather than on the person themselves or what you think they might mean by their words.
2. ‘Soft focus’ your eyes to take in the whole scene, rather than looking into the eyes of the other person.
3. Give them time: be patient for your chance to talk.
4. Set your personal agenda aside, at least temporarily.
5. Visualise: mentally create your own model or diagram of what the other person is saying, but remember it is just that – your diagram or model, not theirs.
6. Believe what the other person is saying. Treat the words as if they are literally true for the speaker.
7. Repeat some of their words or phrases exactly as you heard them.
8. Take notes, if appropriate and it helps you pay attention.
9. Know your best listening state.
10. Turn your internal commentator down or off.
11. Be curious.
12. Practise!

Five levels of listening
There are at least five types of listening:
1. Listening to disagree
2. Listening to respond (which includes framing a question) or record
3. Listening to understand
4. Listening to help someone understand
5. Listening without intent

1. Listening to disagree is based on the needs of the listener to be heard and valued. Listening at this level is highly selective and it involves identifying words, phrases and ideas that can be seized upon and used against the other person.

If you recognise you are being drawn into this level of listening, the following questions can help to re-establish your focus:
• On whose behalf am I listening?
• What parallel process is happening for me, which I need to “park”?

2. Listening to respond or record seems on the surface to be very helpful. However, it diverts attention to our own thoughts, experiences and stored memories. Finding a helpful question or suggestion may seem appropriate, but what often happens is that the speaker’s thinking progresses as they talk, making our intended intervention obsolete before it is voiced.

3. Listening to understand draws the focus to the speaker’s intent (what are they trying to say and why?) and meaning (what overt and hidden implications are there?). This level of listening requires more experience and confidence in the listener.

Useful questions here are:
• What is the person trying to say?
• What are they trying not to say?
• Are my own experiences and associations helping or hindering me in interpreting what they are saying?
• What is the logic of what is being said?
• What emotions are involved here?
• What meaning is emerging for me and for the speaker?

4. Listening to help someone understand goes a step further in shifting our attention from ourselves to the speaker. This level of listening helps another person become more aware of their own thinking processes; the meaning that they attach to words, phrases, concepts and symbols; the emotional currents colouring their perceptions and behaviours; and the interplay between all of these.

Useful questions include:
• How aware is the speaker of what is happening within them and around them?
• What would help them improve the quality of their thinking and feeling?
• What do I need to avoid in order not to interrupt their growing awareness?

5. Listening without intent aims simply to support someone in the conversation they need or want to have with themselves, with the minimum of intervention by the listener. This is not easy! Especially when letting go even of the need to think about the next question (thinking about what to ask next can be a huge distraction). The listener has confidence that, at the moment an appropriate question is needed, it will emerge of its own accord. If no question does emerge when the speaker stops, then a period of silence and reflection usually helps to allow the process to continue.

This level of listening can be compared with sleeping on a problem and finding a solution when you wake up.

Useful questions that help to take us listen without intent include:
• What will help me achieve stillness without turning to my own thoughts?
• Am I attending with all my senses?
• Can I help just by being here?

Highly experienced listeners admit to finding themselves in each of the five levels of listening at times. They tend to centre on listening to help someone understand, but they spend time in each session both above and below this level.