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The Art of Active Listening

Dec 05, 2011

By becoming a better listener, you will improve your leadership and management skills as well as your ability to resolve conflicts, understand complicated situations, and minimize misunderstandings.

Chahine photo   CopyDr. Mireille Chahine, Associate Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist, University of Idaho
Listening is one of the most important skills you can work on improving. How well you listen will, without any doubt, impact your effectiveness as a leader, co-worker and/or manager.
Studies show that we typically only remember 25% to 50 % of what we hear. This means that when an employee talks to you, you are listening to less than half of his or her conversation. The way to become a better listener is to improve your active listening skills.
Wikipedia defines active listening as “a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they hear.” It involves listening to your co-workers or employees before even starting to think about how to respond.
Acquiring and mastering the ability to actively listen will help you improve your communication skills, as well as your relationships, by improving understanding and reducing conflicts. Most of us, when listening to other people, do not pay close enough attention to what is being said. We continue doing our chores, reading our emails, evaluating the price of milk or, most of the time, thinking about how we are going to answer and what we are going to say next.
While actively listening, it is important to focus 100% on the speaker, to observe his or her body language so you can understand where they are coming from and what they are saying, while at the same time attempting to analyze the tone of their voice. Facing the speaker, minimizing internal and external distractions and keeping an open mind will all help you become a better active listener.
It is almost impossible to spend 100% of the time listening with nothing else in your mind, but you should strive to spend more time actively listening.  Asking for a couple of seconds to think about your response might give you more time to answer. Getting in the habit of thinking 1 or 2 seconds before answering anyone is a very beneficial skill that shows you are spending time thinking about what your speaker has said and will help minimize interruptions. Acknowledging the speaker by nodding could also be beneficial because it indicates you are listening without necessarily agreeing with the message said.  
Asking for clarification is a very important part of actively listening. It will allow you to clarify unclear interpretation and get more information. Paraphrasing the conversation will also allow you to test your understanding of the message, check out your assumptions and will give you more time to evaluate the situation and provide an answer. Remember that our assumptions and judgments can alter what we hear, so defer judgment and do not interrupt with counter arguments.
Finally, remember that by becoming a better listener, you will improve your leadership and management skills, as well as your ability to resolve conflicts, understand complicated situations, and minimize misunderstandings. Become a more effective listener. Practice the active listening technique and you will improve your communication skills.
Dr. Mireille Chahine is Associate Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist in the Animal and Veterinary Science Department at the University of Idaho in Twin Falls. Contact her at 208-736-3609 or
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