Active Listening Concepts and its Applications to Education
Contrary to the popular notion that listening is but a passive activity, good and real listening actually requires an active participation in the communication process. Listening entails giving one’s physical and emotional presence to the speaker. It is important to understand that hearing and listening are two different things. Hearing is simply the process of perceiving audible sounds with the ear while listening requires analysis and evaluation of every spoken message and to follow this with an action – a response that confirms the spoken message (“Active Listening”, n.d.; Fowler, 2005).
There are so many things we communicate just by listening. Because they are not talking, people usually think that they’re not contributing to the communication process. On the contrary, Rogers and Farson (1957) believe that by consistently listening to a speaker, they are conveying the message of being interested in the person and that they understand him even if they do not necessarily agree with him. It is actually more credible if one can demonstrate what he professes are the things he believes in. While it is quite difficult to convince someone that you respect him, he will easily believe it when you demonstrate respect for him. Listening does that effectively.
Active Listening Concept and Techniques
Different people use different listening modes when communicating. Some are competitive or combative listeners – those who are more interested in advancing their own points of view rather than genuinely listening to the speaker. As is often the case, the listener already thinks of a rebuttal while the speaker voices his/her own thoughts and feelings. This of course does not result to an effective communication process. Some people are passive listeners – hearing and understanding the message spoken to them but failing to respond successfully or at all to this message. Active listeners on the other hand are genuinely
interested on what the speaker has to say, how the speaker feels and make sure that they fully understand all the details before making a reaction (Fowler, 2005).
Active listening, among the listening modes, is the most effective and is highly recommended to produce optimal results (Fowler, 2005). This is because it requires the listener to be both physically and mentally present for the speaker. The listener has to practice a high level of understanding, has to suspend all judgment and even has to take the risk of changing one’s own point of view.
How exactly is active listening done? As an active listener, a person’s primarily role, of course, is to listen. The listener accompanies the speaker with his attention (Cane, 2000).
He simply listens with respect, does not judge the speaker based on what was said, and does not offer any advice for the problem. He provides an environment conducive for the speaker to share their thoughts, feelings, concerns and problems without fear of being judged or opposed. The listener’s role does not end with “just” listening however. He has to employ different kinds of active listening techniques to win the speaker’s trust and induce him to continue sharing.
A. Provide Feedback
Feedback can either be in verbal or non-verbal form. Verbal responses such as “uh huh”, “I see”, “I understand” and “right” helps the speaker feel that they are being genuinely listened to and thus will keep the information flowing (Hartl, 2004). Non-verbal responses are just as significant. Eye contact, a smile, various facial expressions (concern, surprise, delight, gladness, etc.), a nod, hand placement and gestures, and posture denote interest and concentration in what the speaker says and has to say. When listening to a speaker across a table, it is better to lean towards the speaker with your hands on your lap or on the table rather than leaning back on your chair with your arms across your chest. The former signifies
interest while the latter, indifference. The speaker can easily perceive non-verbal messages being sent and will respond accordingly.
At a certain point during the dialogue, the listener may get confused about what he’s being told. It is important that he immediately asks clarifying questions. Although this may be difficult for some because it could be regarded as a sign of inattention, it is nevertheless both beneficial for both the speaker and the listener if the latter asks for clarification. If the dialogue continues even if the listener remains confused, the confusion will only more likely escalate (Johnson & Pugach, 2004).
There are two main reasons why people get confused. First, the way the speaker sends the message can lead to confusion (Johnson & Pugach, 2004). When a person is confused or agitated, he tends to dart across several different thoughts and as a result sends a message that is quite unorganized. When the talker’s words become unclear, the active listener must assume most of the responsibility for the communication (Lewis, 1989). In this case, it is best to slow the person down, ask questions and in the process help them to speak more precisely.
The second reason why confusion arises is the listener’s very own inattention. After an individual has been talking for a long time, the listener may find himself thinking of things that are unrelated to what the speaker is saying (Johnson & Pugach, 2004). Suddenly, he finds himself unsure of what has been said for the past few minutes. Although it may be embarrassing for him to ask questions because this could be a sign of lack of attention, he has to get over this feeling and clarify points nevertheless. It is much to ask and be lucid about all the points rather than bluff and risk being more confused in the process.
It is best to remember to use a neutral and interested voice when asking clarifying questions (Hartl, 2004). Do not sound suspicious, contradictory or combative. Remember that active listeners are not supposed to agree or disagree with the speaker’s point of view. The way the question is asked and the way it is phrased should reflect this.
Lewis (1989) states the logic behind paraphrasing: “The more times you repeat something, the greater your chances of retaining it.” In a typical conversation, the listener hears most of the information only once, reducing the chances of him remembering much of it. This can be resolved by periodically repeating key facts in the speaker’s message. Care has to be employed when using this technique. Listeners may be vulnerable to repeating verbatim portions of the speaker’s message. Worse, this can be done too frequently. The listener must therefore be able to analyze the proper time to review or paraphrase – probably every few minutes or when the topic gets more complicated.
Quite similar to asking clarifying questions, paraphrasing is used to clarify some points or check the accuracy of a listener’s understanding of what the speaker is saying. This provides the speaker with the opportunity to reflect on the interpretation of the receiver (listener) and make adjustments if necessary in order to harmonize the speaker’s thoughts and the listener’s interpretation (Johnson & Pugach, 2004).
Summarizing comes at the end of a conversation. A brief summary of what happened during the interaction and what actions should be taken as a result of the interaction is needed to close the communication process. Johnson and Pugach (2004) offer two reasons why a summary is important: 1) it is an opportunity for everyone involved to review the key points in the conversation, and agree about what was said or disagree and revise the content of the
summary to clarify key events, and 2) both parties are informed of the future steps to be taken after the conversation so any misunderstanding is avoided.
Barriers to Active Listening
There are many barriers that prevent a person from really hearing what is said. Some of these are external barriers while some come internally from the speaker or the listener (“Improving Your Listening Skills”, 2007). External barriers include various interruptions within the surroundings like noises, people and other interruptions that would prevent an individual to actively listen to someone. In order for the communication to have a desirable outcome, distractions must first be removed. This means the TV must be turned off, the doors closed, and the emails checked only after the conversation (Fowler, 2005). In cases where there is more than one listener, both listeners must not have their own conversation but rather focus their attention on the speaker.
Internal barriers also come from within the listener. Past experiences, prejudices, assumptions made, attitudes and personality traits all contribute to barriers consciously or unconsciously placed by the listener. For example, some listeners tend to rehearse what they’re going to say after the speaker finishes his delivery. As an effect, they focus more on their own message and not the speaker’s message (Fowler, 2005). As they are not paying good attention to the message, they may get confused during the process or the speaker would sense their inattentivity and be offended.
Another barrier is an individual’s natural tendency to think ahead of the speaker and try to guess what the next points are (Hartl, 2004). This is a result of the natural process of our thoughts outspeeding the spoken word. As a result, some listeners may feel the urge to finish the speaker’s sentences thinking that this will save a good amount of time.
Although it may, interrupting is always rude and may offend the speaker resulting to the breaking short of the communication process. Furthermore, interrupting may ruffle the speaker’s organized train of thoughts resulting to muddled and confusing messages.
As an active listener, it is best to keep silent until the speaker finishes delivering his point. Focus instead on what the speaker is saying and wait until he is completely finished (Hartl, 2004). You can ask clarifying questions or paraphrase when there is a pause in the delivery but never cut a speaker off in mid-sentence.
Fowler (2005) also cautions against the urge to identify with everything the speaker says. If you relate everything being said to your own experiences, you are not allowing yourself to understand how it relates to the sender. Remember that individuals are unique and that they may react differently to the same experiences. What you felt during the experience may not necessarily be how the speaker feels.
Arguing or debating with the speaker is also to be avoided when practicing active listening. It is a natural tendency for us to begin formulating a rebuttal when we hear someone say something that we strongly disagree with (“Active Listening”, n.d.). This is a result of the natural reaction to resist any new information that is in conflict with what we believe in. When debate is really necessary, this could come later after the speaker has completely finished with the delivery of his message.
Aside from arguing and debating, it is also a strong urge for every listener to give a piece of advice to the speaker. When we plead, reason or encourage someone to follow our own way of doing and seeing things, we are actually responding to our own needs to see the world in certain ways (Rogers & Farson, 1957). It is difficult for us to see and tolerate actions that are different from the way we believe we should act. If however, we can free ourselves from the need to change these people’s actions, then we can listen more effectively and maybe in the process actually bring about change.
Sometimes barriers can come from the speaker himself. When these barriers are not overcome, it can make communication difficult. Speakers may sometimes have expectations of their listeners which are not expressed to others (“Improving Your Listening Skills”, 2007). It is therefore important to clarify points and ask pertinent questions. Speakers may also have fears of taking risks. After all, it is not easy to share parts of your life to someone and risk being rejected in the process. As a result, some speakers avoid talking or disclosing about certain subjects. That is why it is important that the listener create an atmosphere where the speaker can be at ease and will not be made to feel judged or ridiculed.
Speaking in codes is another barrier that a speaker has to overcome. This involves speaking in a language or jargon that only a few people understand. Aside from being rude, using this kind of information severely limits the effectivity of the communication. It is important that the speaker, when this happens, clarifies points and asks open-ended questions.
It has been mentioned earlier that certain gestures, postures and actions adopted by listeners may offend speakers. Conversely, speakers can also offend listeners when they don’t have any boundaries. A boundary is something a person has developed that defines what is good or bad for him (“Improving Your Listening Skills”, 2007). Most people have boundaries but others do not. They may offer more than what is proper and this turns off listeners, affecting the communication process negatively.
Active Listening in the Academic Community
It is perhaps inside the classroom that active listening becomes of primary significance. While it is true that active listening is needed in corporate offices, in federal institutions and even among workers in small offices, it is in the classroom that individuals should learn proper listening. If they are able to learn active listening in the school, they will grow up to be individuals who are able to tolerate ways of doing things different from their own, persons who are able to listen without judging or criticizing.
It is quite unfortunate however that there seem to be a lack of listening skills in school children nowadays. Graves and Loaiza (1999), while first to third grade students from low to middle income families in central Illinois concluded that students lacked active listening skills and techniques. A review of the curriculum indicated lack of objectives, lesson designs and activities that would promote active listening. Perhaps one of the significant factors contributing to this lack of interest in advancing proper listening is both the teachers’ and the parents’ beliefs that listening is an automatic response and does not need to be taught.
Teachers are major players in the kids’ ability to listen well. Teachers, especially those who have not had any teaching methods course in listening, seem to have a misconception regarding listening. From their own experiences, teachers admit that listening is usually viewed in a general context, with instructions given as “Listen everyone”, “Listen carefully”, “Now you need to listen this is important”, etc. (Engraffia, et. al., 1999). Such directions assume that the students do not need to be taught as the students develop the skill naturally. Such beliefs translate to the inability and the unreceptiveness of teachers to the idea of attempting to teach listening skills.
Looking at teaching listening skills as an added burden to their existing curriculum is also one reason why teachers fail to impart this important skill to their students. Because of time constraint, teachers don’t considering listening instructions anymore (Engraffia, et. al., 1999). It is no wonder therefore that teachers continue to be frustrated with the children’s lack of listening skills.
Teachers however cannot effectively teach something that they themselves have difficulty practicing. Students learn more from their teachers’ actions rather than what they say. Teachers demand undivided attention from their students and yet fail to give undivided attention to their students. Teachers frequently cut their students off. (Jalongo, 1996 as cited by Engraffia, et. al., 1999). Therefore, teachers’ actions may actually promote non-listening behaviors.
Another misconception regarding active listening is that teachers may believe they are designing lessons to teach active listening skills but in reality, are just creating lessons to require students to listen (Graves & Loaiza, 1999). Students likewise show certain misconceptions of their own. Kids believe that “not talking” and “staying on your seat” is active listening. This shows that students equate being quiet to active listening. Although this may not entirely be false, this is not entirely true either. When children’s misconceptions continue to be unchecked, this will create a cycle of non-listeners where untrained children will grow up to be untrained adults who will be incapable of teaching the next generation.
Jalongo (1995) wrote an interesting and sensible article discussing the teacher’s role in active listening. The author emphasizes that students became actively involved and attentive because of their teacher’s behavior. As mentioned earlier, teachers can only teach active listening only once they have become active listeners themselves. Listening to kids is important because it makes them feel valued. Even when a student gives a rather lengthy discussion and the other students are becoming restless, a teacher can cut him short but has to channel his enthusiasm into a different kind of self-expression. In this way, the student still feels that he is being listened to and is valued.
It is likewise important that teachers have developmentally appropriate expectations. A teacher for example should understand that smaller children are less likely to listen in large groups. Unlike bigger children, kindergarten kids listen better in smaller groups making it also easier for the teacher to handle (Jalongo, 1995).
The ability to manage the classroom well is actually tied to the teacher’s ability to teach listening skills. A boisterous activity may be difficult to quiet down and the children may be unable to listen once they do. However, a teacher can resort to creative activities or songs and dances that can attract children’s attentions and prepare them for active listening.
Children’s ability to learn active listening is also associated with the teacher’s ability to communicate effectively (Jalongo, 1995). Some teachers become frustrated with their student’s repeated failure to follow directions. Such actions may actually be a result of the teacher’s inability to give simple and clear instructions. If teachers strive to communicate more effectively and periodically check for understanding, then active listening will gradually develop in the students.
Since learning in the classroom is a two-way process, participated by both the teacher and the students, the latter also has a role in active listening. The children’s motivation to listen is of primary importance in his learning. It is important that students be asked to develop a specific, interesting task in order for them to be more motivated to listen. Children’s listening habits need attention. Students who have become passive listeners should be assigned activities that will transform them into active listeners.
Some children’s listening behavior is affected by the social context wherein the student, may be overwhelmed by the status differential between him and the teacher, and he feels he is in no place to ask (Jalongo, 1995). In this case, teachers should assign activities that will draw out questions from the children, in consequence improving their listening habits
Active listening promotes genuine listening by being both physically and mentally present to the speaker. It involves simply listening with respect, not advising, arguing nor criticizing. Aside from plain listening, active listening also entails showing the speaker that you’re interested in what he has to say. This requires non-verbal positive feedback such as warm, open and welcoming gestures.
Furthermore, the listener has to clarify points that are not clear in order to have a more effective communication. The speaker’s message is paraphrased periodically for better retention and also to verify that the understanding of the listener coincides with what the speaker wants to convey. The interaction between speaker and listener is summarized before the dialogue ends in order for a clearer understanding and to avoid misunderstanding.
Barriers exist however, that make active listening difficult or not possible. These include external barriers – those coming from the surroundings, or internal barriers – either those that are exhibited by the listener or those shown by the speaker.
The concept and strategies of active learning can be put into optimal use inside the classroom. Studies have shown however that students continue to be poor listeners because of many misconceptions of parents, teachers and even students themselves regarding active listening. Primary of these is the mistaken belief that proper listening is an automatic response which cannot be taught.
Active listening however CAN be taught. First and foremost, teachers have to be active listeners themselves in order to teach listening skills. They also need to have developmentally appropriate expectations, are able to manage classroom properly and have effective communication skills. All these contribute to the ability to instill into the students the beauty of listening.
Students themselves also have a role in active listening. They must be properly motivated in order to expedite their learning; they also require attention so that they won’t remain to be passive listeners or won’t revert to passive listening once they’ve become active listeners; and they have to be encouraged to formulate and ask proper questions in order to enhance their listening behaviors.
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