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Effective Communication Skills: The 5 Stages of Active Listening

In a day, an average person spends 70-80% of their time communicating with someone. And the average number of words a human being speaks per day is around 16000.

50% of our time communicating is spent listening to the other person, ideally. However, most people usually remember only 17% to 25% of what they listen to. And even more shocking is the fact that other people perceive us as good listeners only 5 to 10% of the time.

The 1st step to excellence in communication is listening, i.e. Active Listening. It is crucial in customer service, and also one of the most desired traits in leaders and managers.

Below is a depiction of the stages of Active Listening:

First, let us know the difference between hearing and listening. While hearing is a physical process of the body, sound vibrations hitting our eardrums and the brain processing that, listening, on the other hand, involves mental attention and concentration.

In Active Listening, the listener also conveys to the speaker that they are being paid full attention to.

Here are the 5 Stages of Active Listening explained in detail:

Stage 1 Listening with 'Body Language'

The 1st stage of Active Listening is active body language. With positive and attentive body language we can convey to the person we are talking to, that we are paying full attention, and are interested in what they are saying. And to the subconscious mind of your friend or colleague, you come across as an incredible listener.

Gerard Egan, a professor at the Loyola University of Chicago, came up with an effective model in active listening called S.O.L.E.R. in his book The Skilled Helper. Counselors, psychologists, and therapists around the world follow this technique, and it is also taught to business leaders to help them listen to their team members effectively during discussions.

So, let’s understand and use this very simple body language model for active listening.

S (Square shoulders): Face the person you are talking to, square and straight, your shoulders facing their shoulders. This conveys that you are giving full attention to the person speaking.

Speaker tip: When you are speaking to someone be sure to check if they are squarely facing you, otherwise much of what you will say, will not be heard. Works wonders when you go to the manager to ask for leave.

O (Open posture): Avoid crossing your arms or legs, or both. Also avoid keeping too much material between the 2 of you, like an open laptop or a cluttered desk.

L (Lean Forward): Slightly leaning forward conveys interest and involvement in the conversation. Observe 2 lovebirds talking and you will see them leaning towards each other. They may be ready to fall on each other, but you don’t need to do that. A little bit will be fine. Ok, 15 to 30 degrees angle (pun intended).

E (Eye Contact): Of course, staring is out of the picture, but when someone is speaking, making eye contact is essential to convey that you are focused. In the Indian context, this may initially be difficult as we are taught since childhood not to make eye contact with our elders.

R (Relax): Take a deep breath, relax, and be in the present moment. Avoid fidgeting with things like a pen or mobile as it becomes a distraction to the speaker. When you are relaxed and focused, so will your speaker be.

You can apply this easy technique in all your conversations, with friends, family, or colleagues at work. And with practice, it will become a natural part of your muscle memory and more and more people will feel like speaking to you and sharing their thoughts.

Make it an unforgettable experience for people who speak to you, even blissful at times, because of your focused attention and positive body language.

Stage 2 'Paraphrasing' & Asking Questions

Paraphrasing & Asking Questions is the 2nd stage of Active Listening and a crucial element to any conversation. It is like a confirmation to the speaker that you were listening and understood what they shared.

Paraphrasing actually works wonders because of the following reasons:
  1. The speaker gets to know that you were listening attentively
  2. The speaker can also verify whether you heard what they meant
  3. The listener also gets a chance to verify whether what they heard was correct
  4. And the listener, by paraphrasing, also remembers the conversation better and gets time to think and analyze the information

Counselors and therapists use Paraphrasing and Questions in conversations with their clients regularly. But how can you and I use and practice this in our daily lives? Here are a few real-life applications:
  1. Talking to your parents: parents would love it when we show that we are carefully listening to them and their advice, without rebelling at the drop of a hat. Afterward, you can follow up with your point.
  2. Senior is assigning you a task: many times, managers give tasks to team members, only to find out hours later that the team member did not understand the whole job. So, it helps when one paraphrases and restates the task to be done in order to be clear and to save time.
  3. Talking to a client: clients like to be listened to, half of the escalations in customer service are because the previous executive did not listen to the client. Paraphrasing is reassuring to clients that their problem has been correctly captured and the executive was listening.
  4. Interacting with colleagues: regular conversations with colleagues at work are also a platform to build relationships and convey that you are a good listener. Practice paraphrasing with them and see the magic.
Let us now look at how to Paraphrase, as well as other forms of verbal confirmation that precede paraphrasing.

Let’s do it with an example, say, the speaker just said, “I am partially satisfied with my job, mostly because of the low pay”.

Repeating/Restating: is almost like parroting, you repeat what the other person just said back to them. It is ok to use it a couple of times,
For e.g.: “You are partially satisfied at your job, mostly because of the low pay”

Rephrasing: to substitute a few words with synonyms in order to deepen the meaning of what the speaker just said.
For e.g.: “You are not completely satisfied with your job, and would like to be paid better

Paraphrasing: means “to express the meaning of (something is written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity.” It is a summary of what was just shared in the listeners' own words, but with an analysis added to it. There will be a bit of interpretation from the end of the listener, but without changing the meaning of what the other person spoke. And it also helps to confirm your understanding.
For e.g.: “You are rethinking your career prospects given the low satisfaction and the pay you receive from your current job

Asking Questions, on the other hand, is an effective way to engage and steer the conversation. You can use all sorts of questions to delve deeper or reconfirm what you heard. Open-ended questions help the other person share in detail and close-ended questions are for 1-word answers. Too many close-ended questions can stall the conversation, so use them sparingly.

Stage 3 'Meaning and Reflection'

The third stage is what happens inside the listeners' mind, processing to develop ‘Meaning and Reflection’ about what the speaker just shared.

It may look easy because all of us can understand what we listen to, as per our stage of comprehension, and which we feel is right and sufficient. But, this is where the mental barriers of communication come into play.

What are the Mental Barriers to Listening? Here are a few:
  • Day Dreaming
  • Thinking about solutions
  • Thinking about what they will say next
  • Lack of energy to spend effort in listening
  • Cognitive Bias and prejudice a.k.a. Judging
  • Unconscious bias
  • Our beliefs and values
  • Getting emotional
In order to be effective in drawing the most appropriate meaning and reflection out of what the speaker said, and as per their context, we need to keep the following in mind:
  1. It is about them not you: ever liked somebody who always makes everything about themselves? It is important that in a conversation the focus remains with the person who is sharing
  2. Open-mindedness: your beliefs, values, and thinking might not be shared by everyone and it is essential that we look at the speaker as right in their context
  3. Full attention: pay attention, and your body language & paraphrasing show that you are paying full attention to the speaker
  4. No assumptions: throw preconceived notions and the generic assumptions out of the window, and think of it as a fresh conversation
  5. Cross-check, always: whatever meaning you have drawn, always cross-check with the speaker if this is what they meant, it can be done with paraphrasing or by asking questions
  6. Separate the emotion from the meaning: many times people get emotional when sharing something, which is alright. However, the listener needs to be careful not to get carried away by the emotion and lose the meaning of the discussion

Being able to connect with a person speaking to you and elicit the right meaning will make you a trustworthy and authentic person who does not always impose their views on others. This is a building block to long-term term relationships that we are all capable of practicing.

Stage 4 'Empathy'

Now let’s look at the 4th stage, Empathy. This is where the emotions, the feelings come in, of both the speaker and the listener.

Imagine you are standing by a roadside, talking to a friend, just chit-chatting. Suddenly there is a loud sound of screeching… and thump! You see that a biker has met with an accident and has fallen down on the road. Keep aside the thought of how you would react to this situation and think that you are observing other people react to this situation.

One of the people walking by murmurs a few words without stopping, you could hear, “stupid guy was driving so fast and rash, he was doomed to meet an accident”. And this person just walks by.

Another person stops to look at the biker, and you hear them say, “poor fellow, must be badly hurt, hope he gets alright”. And then that person also walks away.

A third person, even before you heard the other two, was rushing towards the biker, and then helped him get up and sit on the curb, offered his handkerchief and water, and asked someone standing to move the bike aside.

How do you think the 3 people above reacted?

I’m not saying we judge these 3 people as a person purely based on this situation, however, for the sake of learning let’s see how each of their reactions can be classified.

Apathy: in dictionary terms, not with the feeling of the other. Person 1 in our situation above was apathetic towards the biker, and s/he could not connect with what the biker must be feeling at that moment.

Sympathy: knowing what the other person must be feeling. Person 2 who said, “poor fellow…” could figure out the feeling of the biker and understand them. However, they themselves couldn’t feel those emotions within.

Empathy: feeling what the other person is feeling in their frame of reference. There is a famous saying about empathy, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”

The 3rd Person in our situation above was themselves not crying with pain, but that person took Action because they knew how the biker must be feeling, Empathy always leads to Action, i.e. empathic action.

When we are actively listening to someone we need to delve deeper and try to feel what that person must be feeling in their frame of reference. This will happen when we are completely in the moment and listening to the person without judgment and prejudice and with respect for the other person’s feelings.

The beauty of being a human is that we can express our emotions, and feel the emotions of others, it is natural to us. It just needs to come upon the surface and make us a more connected person and help make the world a better place.

Stage 5 'Action'

Taking Appropriate Action, Empathetic Action is the 5th stage of Active Listening (model below). When we are involved in a conversation and actively listening to someone, what would naturally follow is Action. You wouldn’t have seen someone adding this step to Active Listening, however, I feel this is a crucial differentiator between a good listener and an empathetic listener.

Action, adds value to the interaction and more to the relationship. Imagine if you and I had an hour-long conversation about your current troubles in life and without doing anything about it I walk away. I don’t give you any references, any of my contacts that could help you, or my direct help, or even a small piece of guidance or advice. You wouldn’t waste time again with me on this, will you?

Here are a few actions we can take when Actively Listening to someone:
  1. Share your experience: sometimes sharing your own experience in dealing with a similar situation may motivate the other person to keep going. However, we have to be cautious not to make it sound like advice or show that you have better capability
  2. Teach them a skill, or guide them to learn: many times, challenges occur and we are not able to get out of them because of our lack of ability/skill or knowledge on how to deal with it. Teaching them something or guiding them to pick up a new skill or knowledge can really empower them.
  3. Assist them in a task not related to what they shared: you may not be able to, or should, help your colleague or team member with their personal problems. But you can help them take off some pressure from them at work so that they can deal with other problems. A manager can also do this when their team member is going through a tough situation outside work
  4. Offer your direct help with their problem: if you can and being fully aware that you are getting into it, help directly solve the problem. This will require your commitment to not leave it in between and not let it affect your relationship with this person, so tread carefully
  5. Share a reference from your network: if you cannot directly help maybe someone in your network can. Let both the parties know that you are connecting them
  6. Last and least, Give Advice: only share advice that they have not received yet, and check with them if they find it useful. The advice, in general, must not be the first reaction after listening to someone

Hope you found this concept interesting.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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