Active listening is technique that is used in counseling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. This is opposed to other listening techniques like reflective listening and empathic listening. Reflective listening is where the listener repeats back to the speaker what they have just heard to confirm understanding of both parties. Empathic listening is about giving people an outlet for their emotions before being able to be more open, sharing experiences and being able to accept new perspectives on the troubled topic that is the reason of emotional suffering. Listening skills may establish flow rather than closed mindedness, negative emotions include stress, anger and frustration.
Comprehension is a shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction. This is the first step in the listening process. The second step is being able to take breaks between discernible words, or talking segmentation.
Retaining is the second step in the process. Memory is essential to the listening process because the information retained when a person is involved in the listening process is how meaning from words is created. Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. Memories are fallible, things like cramming may cause information to be forgotten.
Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. Having heard, the listener may then paraphrase the speaker's words. It is important to note that the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker—simply stating what was said.
Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else's argument for its weaknesses and ignore its strengths. This may include a distortion of the speaker's argument to gain a competitive advantage. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created.
In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the term "active listening", states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. ... Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task ..."
Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring, medical workers talking to patients, HIV counseling, helping suicidal persons, management, counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation or small talk to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
The proper use of active listening results in getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improved cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Barriers to active listening
Some barriers are due to hunger or fatigue of the listener, making them irritated and less inclined to listen to the speaker. Sometimes it is due to the language the speaker uses—such as high sounding and bombastic words that can lead to ambiguity. Other barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span. Listening barriers may be psychological (e.g., emotions) or physical (e.g., noise and visual distraction).
Shift response is the general tendency of a speaker in a conversation to affix attention to their position. This is a type of conversational narcissism—the tendency of listeners to turn the topic to themselves without showing sustained interest in others. A support response is the opposite of a shift response; it is an attention giving method and a cooperative effort to focus the conversational attention on the other person. Instead of being me-oriented like shift response, it is we-oriented. It is the response a competent communicator is most likely to use.
Understanding of non-verbal cues
Ineffective listeners are unaware of non-verbal cues, though they dramatically affect how people listen. To a certain extent, it is also a perceptual barrier. Up to 93 percent of people's attitudes are formed by non-verbal cues. This should help one to avoid undue influence from non-verbal communication. In most cases, the listener does not understand the non-verbal cues the speaker uses. A person may show fingers to emphasize a point, but this may be perceived as an intent by the speaker to place their fingers in the listener's eyes. Overuse of non-verbal cues also creates distortion, and as a result listeners may be confused and forget the correct meaning.
Overcoming listening barriers
The active listening technique is used to improve personal communications in organizations. Listeners put aside their own emotions and ask questions and paraphrase what the speaker says to clarify and gain a better understanding of what the speaker intends to say. Judging or arguing prematurely is a result of holding onto a strict personal opinion. This hinders the ability to be able to listen closely to what is being said. Eye contact and appropriate body languages are seen as important components to active listening. The stress and intonation may also keep them active and away from distractions.
Active listening in music
Active Listening has been developed as a concept in music and technology by François Pachet, researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory, Paris. Active listening in music refers to the idea that listeners can be given some degree of control on the music they listen to, by means of technological applications mainly based on artificial intelligence and information theory techniques, by opposition to traditional listening, in which the musical media is played passively by some neutral device
Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term "active listening" in 1957 in a paper of the same title (reprinted in 1987 in the volume “Communicating in Business Today”). They write: "Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian."
A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active listening techniques in the context of couple's therapy, the typical couple was still distressed.
Active listening was criticized by John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as being of limited usefulness:
Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk. . . . After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this approach to counseling doesn't work, not just because it's nearly impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed. One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they're upset.
Robert F. Scuka defends active listening by arguing that:
...a careful reading of the Hahlweg et al. (1984) study reveals that Gottman cites only certain (one-sided) results from the study. He also overlooks several important considerations that call into question his implied dismissal of the RE model as a legitimate therapeutic intervention for distressed couples.
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