Relationship Building Skills – Active Listening


There are a number of factors that contribute to productive relationships and assist in the development of a mutual understanding amongst people. There is none, however, that is more important than Active Listening. This is an essential skill in life, but I am amazed at the number of people who have never learned it. Many people learned it once a long time ago, but as most skills, when not practiced, they have lost their edge. It is a skill that can enhance the quality of relationships, friendships, marriages, parent/child interactions, business dealings and international relations on almost every level. Yet, it is sometimes referred to as a “lost art.”

In our egocentric society, it is no wonder we have the number of relationship problems that we do. Technological skills have somehow gained more importance in our learning environments, to the point where our technological achievements have outpaced our ability as a people to achieve mutual understanding and agreement in our homes, friendships, workplace, and world forums. The solutions to the most complicated of problems, begins with Active Listening.

Here is a summary and brief explanation of those behaviors and verbal characteristics that demonstrate Active Listening.

Behaviors Associated with Active Listening

1. Eye Contact is essential.

2. Physical Matching – When someone shakes your hand, purposely match their grip pressure in the handshake. Mirroring someone’s expressions and gestures indicates that you are in step with them.

3. Posture – Try to emphasize a posture that leans toward the person you are speaking with. When your intention is to understand someone, your posture will reflect that. Practice a posture that you might use if the person were speaking very quietly, and you were straining to hear them. Face the person squarely, and open your posture to indicate receptivity.

4. Gestures – Physical gestures offer feedback to your communicator. Nodding, questioning, and other active gestures inform them of your interest and understanding.

Verbal Responses Associated with Active Listening

1. Paraphrase or restate the verbal message in a shortened fashion. Paraphrasing allows you to communicate your understanding of what was heard.

2. When paraphrasing consider the content of the message. It will offer you the essential information they intend for you to understand.

3. When paraphrasing consider the process of the communication or the feeling intention behind the message. The tone of voice, the body language, the speed of delivery, all these things indicate the message behind the message.

4. Your paraphrasing can be used to clarify the communication by seeking a better understanding, untangle unclear information, to get an example, or avoid a misunderstanding. For example, “I’m confused, what I thought you said was…”. “Is that what you meant?”

5. Your response in a conversation can move beyond paraphrasing, and begin to give and receive feedback, or to check out assumptions. The process is called perception checking. For example, “I’m not sure if I understand what you are saying. You stated that you love your children and that they are very important to you. Also, you said you can’t stand being with them. I’m a little confused, can you clear that up for me?”

6. Another verbal technique in Active Listening involves summarizing the message communicated. When your response organizes and integrates the major aspects of a conversation into an encapsulating statement you have summarized the message. This is used to help each person have a sense of accomplishment and closure with the communication since the major ideas, facts and/or feelings are restated in the summary. For example, “A number of good points have been made about the game, they include…”

7. Advanced verbal techniques involve Empathy Responses where both the content and the feelings are restated in the paraphrasing. This is important because it enables you to communicate your understanding of the speaker’s experience in the discussion and it offers your understanding of their feelings. The basic formula is as follows: “You feel (state feeling) because (state content). For example, “I get the sense that you are angry about what was said, because your boss didn’t offer you an opportunity to present your side of the story.”

These behaviors and verbal responses are essential in the practice of Active Listening. It is wise to not assume we understand everything in a conversation and certain situations call for the deliberate use of active listening. Some of these situations include any serious discussion of important life lessons with our children, counseling situations, and/or business discussions. Any situation that has become heated due to a lack of understanding would likely improve if all the parties concerned were to consciously engage in the practice of active listening. Please use this handout freely in any environment or circumstance where active listening is likely to be valuable.

By Dr. Stephen Walker

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