Using the Internet, please research the following terms: • Active listening (techniques to enhance your physical response to listening) • Reflective embodied listening (learning to reflect the emotions that lie behind the words) Please write between 1000-‐2000 words on what you understand those terms to mean and what techniques you
would employ in using these listening skills. What are the do’s and don’ts of each method?
I wrote this short essay in order to complete one of the modules for the Soul Midwife training course.
Active Listening is a method of focusing your entire attention on the person speaking, in a way that demonstrates to the speaker that they have your complete attention. It is called Active Listening because the listener is doing more than just passively hearing the words.
Active Listening contains both verbal and non-verbal components. The Active Listener needs to be aware of these components and work to develop these skills in order to become a more proficient active listener. In addition the listener should be aware of any barriers to communication which may be present.
Non-verbal cues include eye contact, smiling and nodding the head, body posture, mirroring actions, and ignoring distractions. Some of these may be appropriate in some situations but not in others. I will look at each of these in turn.
People in Western cultures tend to place a lot of importance on eye contact, and may perceive someone who either can’t or doesn’t keep direct eye contact to be dishonest or untrustworthy. Constant eye contact and staring can be rather disconcerting as well though. Instead, it is better to maintain soft eye contact glancing away on occasion. Keeping the eyes open slightly wider will also do much to convey your attention and interest in the speaker.
Eye contact should not be forced should the speaker not also do it. Some people find it hard to make eye contact either because of the difficulty in what they are saying, for cultural reasons, because they are shy, or possibly because of a diagnosed or undiagnosed social communication disorder.
The listener’s body posture does a lot to demonstrate to the speaker that the listener is actively engaged and paying attention to what is being said. The Active Listener (AL) should sit or stand facing the speaker, or turned towards the speaker and leaning slightly forward. This posture should not be forced however and the AL should strive to be relaxed in this posture.
This is the automatic reflection or mirroring of the speaker’s facial expressions done to express sympathy or empathy with what is being said. The key here is that it must be done automatically. If the AL tries to consciously mimic the speaker’s facial expressions it will come across as fake and insincere or it can be a sign of inattention.
Simply put, don’t engage in distracting behaviours. The AL should put away phones and refrain from looking at clocks, doodling, or fiddling with hair or fingernails. The AL’s undivided attention should be on the speaker.
Verbal cues include giving brief words of encouragement, remembering, reflection, clarifying, questioning, summarizing. Again some may be more appropriate to use than others depending upon the situation. I will look at each of these more closely.
Words of encouragement
These should be used sparingly lest they interrupt the speaker’s thoughts or start to sound insincere and will become irritating. These can include saying things like “okay” or “mm hmm”, and might be combined with nodding the head or other movements to encourage the speaker to continue.
If you can recall a the key points and voice them back to the speaker it will do much to help reinforce that the messages sent have been received and understood. It may be appropriate to make brief notes during longer exchanges to act as a memory jog when questioning or clarifying later. However, do not let note taking become a distraction.
Verbally restating or paraphrasing in your own words what the speaker has said to show comprehension. This reinforces the message of the speaker, and demonstrates understanding of what has been said. This should be used after the speaker has finished speaking, or if there are several complexities being addressed may be used midway through the conversation to bring several points together.
Doing this helps to ensure that the AL is engaged in the conversation, creates empathy, and helps to build a rapport between speaker and listener.
Asking relevant questions and/or making statements that build or help to clarify what the speaker has said. This helps to reinforce that the AL has an interest in what the speaker has said.
This means asking questions of the speaker to ensure that the correct message has been received. It usually involves the use of open questions to enable the speaker to expand on certain points.
Open questions are used to enable the speaker to elaborate on a specific issue or to direct their attention to one part of the conversation. “Why” questions should be avoided as they ask the speaker to explain what was going on underneath. They may come across as being judgemental. Better questions begin with “How” or “What” or “Tell me about” as they are asking for descriptions and not justifications.
In addition, open questions should focus more on solutions and less on problems. The former prompts the speaker to focus on what they want to achieve while the latter directs the speaker to focus more on what is going wrong.
Similar to reflecting, summarising is the act of repeating back to the speaker what has been said. It involves taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them to the speaker in a logical and clear way. The speaker must be given the chance to correct and clarify points as necessary. The AL needs to be open to being corrected. When the AL is given tasks to complete she should always restate the instructions and messages to be certain that they were understood correctly.
Barriers to communication
In an ideal world two people trying to communicate with each other will speak the same language, have the same understanding of the words and phrases used, and neither will have any sensory problems. We don’t like in that world though, so the AL needs to be aware of these possible barriers to communication and take steps to minimise their impact.
- Speaking different languages, or not being fluent in the language being used
- The use of technical or specialist jargon
- The use of abbreviations and acronyms
- Regional colloquialisms and expressions
- The psychological state of the speaker and the listener
- Emotional overload – intense emotions such as anger can hinder effective communication
- Self-esteem issues
- Hearing difficulties
- Speech impediments
- Vision problems – nuances of non-verbal communication may be lost
- Geographic distance – communication using modern technology can be useful but the many nuances of non-verbal communication are lost
- Structure and organisation – where there are inefficient or inappropriate information channels and methods of communication are hindered
- Where there is a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities for communication and chains of command are not clear
- Individuals may be unclear of their role and not know what is expected of them
- Behaviours and perceptions that prevent people from communicating effectively
- Personality conflicts, poor management, resistance to change, and lack of motivation
- The AL should attempt to overcome their own attitudinal barriers
Reflective Embodied Listening
Reflective Embodied Listening is a state of deeply intensive active listening where the dominant intention is to place the self in the background and receive the messages being conveyed while feeling how the world is experienced from the speaker’s point of view.
It is a spiritual act which places the needs of the speaker above our own needs as we take in their reality without adding or imposing our own opinions. This level of listening takes a great deal of maturity as we are being asked to delay our own wants and desires for the good of another.
One primary difficulty in achieving this level of listening is that the need to speak and to impose our own reality on the speaker can build. One author compares this to a balloon being filled with air until the pressure becomes so great it has to be released. The goal then is to increase our capacity to hold that pressure. This can be done through Grounding, Breathing, and Spatial Awareness
Grounding helps us to feel a sense of support from the Earth and offers an escape valve for building pressure. When the urge to speak and release that pressure builds it can be relieved instead by bringing our attention down into the ground, and our feet connecting us to that ground.
When pressure builds in intense situations our first instinct is to either hold our breath or hyperventilate. Breathing, first by exhaling fully then pausing to sense the breath and inhaling deeply again, this provides good oxygen flow and at the same time relaxes the body and relieves that inner pressure. As we focus on each breath from beginning to end (for at least 3 full cycles) that in turn will help our internal space to expand.
Finally, through Spatial Awareness we expand our boundaries beyond the skin and move our conscious awareness into the world. By focusing on sounds, colours and shapes in the world around us we automatically enlarge our internal space, and in doing so increase our own “balloon”.
Reflective Embodied Listening says to the speaker that the listener wants to understand and accept how they are thinking and feeling. It demonstrates the listener’s belief in the speaker’s ability to understand the situation, identify solutions, select an appropriate solution and implement that solution. It shows the speaker that the listener believes them to be worthwhile and conveys the listener’s willingness to help without judgement.
Dos and Don’ts of Active Listening and Reflective Embodied Listening
- Face the speaker even if the speaker is unable to look at you
- Put aside distractions
- Be attentive, but relaxed
- Maintain eye contact without staring fixedly
- Remain ready to serve
- Keep an open mind – listen without judging or mentally criticising what the speaker is saying
- Concentrate and remember key phrases
- Convey feelings through facial expressions and words. If feelings are confused then occasionally paraphrase the content of the message.
- Put yourself in the speaker’s place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be that person at that moment
- Give the speaker feedback through nodding, occasionally words of encouragement, facial expressions to prove to the speaker that you are listening.
- Be natural
- Listen for the basic message
- Restate in simple terms
- Look for verbal and non-verbal cues to confirm the accuracy or inaccuracy of your paraphrasing
- Be non-directive and non-judgemental
- Admit if you are unsure of what the speaker means
- Focus on accents or speech mannerisms
- Become distracted by your own thoughts, feelings, or biases
- Try to fix problems
- Jump to conclusions
- Impose solutions
- Interrupt or finish sentences – relax your pace to the speed of the speaker if necessary. If you want clarification wait for the person to stop speaking and then say something like “I didn’t understand what you just said about…”
- Let your questions lead the conversation astray or introduce a new topic– if you notice that this has happened, take responsibility and move the conversation back on track.
- Question unnecessarily
- Add to the speaker’s meaning
- Overdo anything from the Do list as it will put forward a sense of falseness or insincerity.
Mind tools: Active Listening (http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm)
Skills you need: Interpersonal Skills (http://www.skillsyouneed.com/interpersonal-skills.html)
Effective communication skills (http://www.only-effective-communication-skills.com/)
Forbes 10 Steps to Effective Listening (http://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/11/09/10-steps-to-effective-listening/)
Russell Delman: Embodied Listening (http://www.russelldelman.com/articles/embodied-listening)
The Embodied Life by Russell Delman