During a conversation, it often happens that the people engaged in the conversation wait to speak rather than actually listen to the speaker. Others are not even listening, being distracted or worse oblivious that they are participants in a communicative act. In fact,  any conversation necessitates a speaker and an active listener.

Why active listening?

Conflicting interlocutors may create tactics to hinder effective listening.  Individuals may contradict each other which has the effect of denying the validity of the other person’s position.

Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else’s argument for its weaknesses and ignores its strengths. The purpose is to attack the speaker’s position and support their own. This may include a distortion of the speaker’s argument to gain a competitive advantage. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. This increases the possibility of collaborating and resolving the conflict.

From Wikipedia

Active listening, however helps participants in a conversation communicate effectively to avoid communication breakdown and maximize understanding.

Epictetus, a Greek sage and Stoic philosopher once said:

We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.

Active listening is a communication skill

The role of the listener in active listening is to give feed back to the speaker of what they hear. This is done through a number of techniques.

  • Re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words to confirm understanding. It is worthwhile noticing that active listeners paraphrasing of the speakers words doesn’t necessarily mean that she or he agrees with the other party.
  • The use of body language such as facial expressions and gestures to interpret the speaker’s message (check out this great post about gestures in ELT).
  • Focusing on the function of language use objectively as opposed to focusing on formal elements of language.
  • Using active verbal and non-verbal codes to respond to the other party.
  • Being objectively engaged in the process of language by being attentive to the speakers meaning.
  • Avoiding subjective use of the the other party’s point  to find weaknesses and ignore strengths as an ambush strategy.

The process of active listening

Different element are noticed in active listening. First, comprehension occurs when information is shared between participants. Listeners have to identify words and sounds that are primordial in comprehending what the speaker wants t to say. Second, retention of information constitutes an essential element in active listening. We risk to lose essential information for a successful transaction if  we engage in mindless listening. That’s why a mindful active listener should make an effort to listen to a speaker’s message and memorize important information for successful communication. Finally, an active listener’s response to the speaker is of paramount importance to keep the flow of optimal communication going. This response may be verbal or non-verbal.

Finally, it is true that a communicative transaction needs two participants, namely a speaker and a listener.  But communication involves more than that. When individuals decide to communicate with people, they seek to fulfill a need such as expressing feelings. To do so, they use social codes that can be verbal or/and non-verbal. The other parties engaged in the conversation will have to decode the message to fully understand the meaning of the message. This cannot be done unless they are good active listeners.

External links:

Wikipedia: Active Listening