Updated February 2013
Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.
Anyone, but especially useful to people in conflict and intermediaries who are trying to help others deal with conflict.
Active listening is designed to deal with the problem that people often do not listen attentively to the person they are talking with. They are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else. When people are engaged in a conflict, they are often busy formulating a response to what is being said. Often, they assume that they have heard what their opponent is saying many times before, so rather than paying attention, they focus on how they can respond to win the argument.
Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and then repeat, in the listener's own words, what he or she thinks the speaker has said. The listener does not have to agree with the speaker -- he or she must simply state what s/he thinks the speaker said. This enables the speaker to find out whether the listener really understood. If the listener did not, the speaker can explain some more.
Often, the listener is encouraged to interpret the speaker's words in terms of feelings. Thus, instead of just repeating what happened, the active listener might add "I gather that you felt angry or frustrated or confused when". . .[a particular event happened]. Then the speaker can go beyond confirming that the listener understood what happened, but can indicate that he or she also understood the speaker's psychological response to it.
A parent got a call from her child's school, reporting that Bonnie (the child) had missed her last three English classes. The parent has a choice: she can confront Bonnie by saying "I heard that you skipped your last three English classes!" Bonnie might then respond "I felt sick, so I went to the nurse." Mom could then say, "Well, you didn't seem very sick at home...." and an argument would ensue. Active listening provides another approach. Mom: "The school called today." Bonnie: "Yeah?" Mom: "They said that you've missed several English classes." Bonnie: "Hmm." Mom: "What's going on in English?" Bonnie: "Nothing, it's just dumb stuff." Mom: "You sound like you are bored with the class." Bonnie: "Yeah, I'm bored, but it's really hard, too." Mom: "So it is boring and frustrating at the same time." Bonnie: "Yeah, like the teacher goes so fast, and I can't do the homework because I don't understand it." And so on.
Rather than accusing Bonnie of wrong-doing, which would likely make Bonnie defensive, and quite possibly get her to stop talking or withdraw from the conversation altogether, the Mom just restates what she hears Bonnie saying. This begins to get Bonnie to open up more, rather than close down. Often it will encourage the speaker to figure out a solution for herself, as it encourages her to think through her problem in an effort to explain it to another person who really seems to care what she has to say.
While active listening can be helpful in most conversations, it is especially helpful in difficult or uncomfortable conversations where there is high potential for misunderstanding and/or escalation. Not only does it force people to listen attentively to the other person, it also avoids misunderstandings, since people have to confirm that they interpreted the speaker correctly. If they didn't, the speaker has a chance to restate what she was saying. Another benefit is that it slows the conversation down, allowing people to "cool off" before they respond. In addition, it tends to open people up, to get them to say more. When people are in conflict, they often contradict each other, denying the opponent's description of a situation. This tends to make people defensive, and they will either lash out or withdraw and say nothing more. However, if they feel that their opponent is really attuned to their concerns and wants to listen, they are likely to explain in detail what they feel and why. If both parties to a conflict do this, the chances of being able to develop a solution to their mutual problem becomes much greater.
Although active listening is useful in any situation (conflict or not) where one really wants to understand the other person's concerns, there are times when it is not appropriate to use. One is when you really don't care what the other person has to say. If your concern is more about telling them what YOU feel, active listening may be too frustrating to do well. On the other hand, if you listen actively to the other person first, they may be more willing to listen to you in return. Active listening is also sometimes awkward to do if the statement the other person said made simple and clear--"I wasn't able to answer your call yesterday," for instance. That can lead to a "parroting" response, "You weren't able to answer my call.," where it sounds like you are making fun of the other person. Try to read something more into the statement--such as a feeling--or ask an open ended question to try to avoid that problem. "Sounds like you had a really busy day yesterday," for example.
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I-Messages and You-Messages