When interacting, people often are not listening attentively to one another. They may be distracted, thinking about other things, or thinking about what they are going to say next, (the latter case is particularly true in conflict situations or disagreements).
Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference and suspending judgment are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.
It is important to observe the other person's behavior and body language. 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. In emotionally charged communications, the listener may listen for feelings. Thus, rather than merely repeating what the speaker has said, the active listener might describe the underlying emotion (“you seem to feel angry” or “you seem to feel frustrated, is that because…?”).
Individuals in conflict often contradict one another. This has the effect of denying the validity of the other person’s position. 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.
In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon 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 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 to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
The benefits of active listening include getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improving cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Active listening can be measured by the Active Listening Observation Scale.
Barriers to Active Listening
All elements of communication, including listening, may be affected by a barrier(s) that can impede the flow of conversation between individuals. Some of these barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span to name a few.
The process of informational listening focuses on the ability of an individual to understand a speaker’s message. It is a huge part of everyday life, and failing to understand the concept of informational listening can be very detrimental to one's contribution to society, and indeed, detrimental to quality of life in general. Much of the listening people engage in on a regular basis falls under the blanket of listening for information. In the office, people listen to their superiors for instructions about what they are to do. At school, students listen to teachers for information that they are expected to understand for quizzes and tests. In all areas of life, informational listening plays a huge role in human communication.
When listening to a person’s message it is common to overlook aspects of the conversation or make judgments before all of the information is presented. This lack of effective comprehension is detrimental to communication and is illustrated effectively by several specific obstacles. Chief among these obstacles are Confirmation Bias and the Vividness Effect. Both obstacles to effective communication distort the speaker’s message by severely affecting the perception of a particular topic.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to pick out aspects of a conversation that support our own beliefs and values. This psychological process proves to have a detrimental effect on communication for several reasons. First, confirmation bias tends to become involved in conversation before the speaker finishes his/her message. As a result an opinion is formed without first obtaining all pertinent information. This, in turn, leads to uneducated thinking and fallacious judgments that could later affect others. Second, confirmation bias detracts from a person’s ability to be open minded. For example, when listening to a statement an individual may hear something at the beginning of the conversation that arouses a specific emotion. Whether this is anger or frustration or anything else, it could have a profound impact on that person’s perception of the rest of the conversation. If they were to become angry about a statement the speaker made early on in the conversation, they would likely be averse to accepting the arguments presented later on in the discourse. In order to combat this bias and avoid its consequences, an individual must be aware of the bias and its effects. From this knowledge stems the fact that an individual has to critically judge both sides of an argument or statement before coming to a conclusion.
The vividness effect explains how vivid or highly graphic and dramatic events affect an individual’s perception of a situation. This phenomenon has been amplified by the media in recent decades. With the use of media technology graphic images can be used to portray an event. While this makes the process of receiving news easier and more enjoyable, it can also blow a situation out of proportion. One year after the Columbine High School shootings, about 60 percent of the people who responded to a survey by USA Weekend said that they felt a shooting was likely at their own school. The reality was much different; in fact, the likelihood of a school shooting is negligible across America. The vividness effect was only amplified by the media. It existed long before the advent of television or radio. When observing an event in person, an individual is automatically drawn toward the sensational or vivid aspects. Thus, a person becomes quick to believe that all aspects of an event are bad if they can remember the one vivid part that offended them. In order to counter this tendency an individual must be aware of this inclination to dramatic events and take measures accordingly. One must resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and instead weigh all of the facts before making a judgment.
In addition to avoiding the two major mistakes listed above, there are things one must do to be a competent informational listener.
In order to really understand what is being said in the present, one must remember what has been said before; and in order for the message to have any impact at all, one must remember at least parts of it at some point in the future. The most obvious memory aid is simply taking notes, but it is also helpful to create a mental outline of the message as it is being heard.
Identify the main point that the speaker is trying to bring across. When the main point has been deduced, one can begin to sort out the rest of the information and decide where it belongs in the mental outline. Before getting the big picture of a message, it can be difficult to focus on what the speaker is saying, because it is impossible to know where any particular piece of information fits. 
It is usually helpful to ask oneself questions about the message. If the listener is mentally asking questions about what is being said, it is a good sign that he/she is actively involved in effective informational listening.
- ^ Gordon, Thomas (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: Wyden books. p. 57. ISBN 0-399-12888-3.
- ^ Gillian Maudsley (1999-03-06). "Roles and responsibilities of the problem based learning tutor in the undergraduate medical curriculum". British Medical Journal 318 (7184): 657–661. PMID 10066213. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1115096.
- ^ a b c Lang F, Floyd MR, Beine KL (2000). "Clues to patients' explanations and concerns about their illnesses. A call for active listening". Arch Fam Med 9 (3): 222–7. doi:10.1001/archfami.9.3.222. PMID 10728107.
- ^ Baxter P, Campbell T. (1994 August 7-12). "HIV counselling skills used by health care workers in Zambia (abstract no. PD0743)". Int Conf AIDS 10 (390). http://gateway.nlm.nih.gov/MeetingAbstracts/102211101.html.
- ^ Laflamme G (1996). "[Helping suicidal persons by active listening]" (in French). Infirm Que 3 (4): 35. PMID 9147668.
- ^ Mineyama S, Tsutsumi A, Takao S, Nishiuchi K, Kawakami N (2007). "Supervisors' attitudes and skills for active listening with regard to working conditions and psychological stress reactions among subordinate workers". J Occup Health 49 (2): 81–7. PMID 17429164.
- ^ Davidhizar R (2004). "Listening--a nursing strategy to transcend culture". J Pract Nurs 54 (2): 22–4; quiz 26–7. PMID 15460343.
- ^ Robertson K (2005). "Active listening: more than just paying attention". Aust Fam Physician 34 (12): 1053–5. PMID 16333490.
- ^ Fassaert T, van Dulmen S, Schellevis F, Bensing J (2007). "Active listening in medical consultations: development of the Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS-global)". Patient Educ Couns 68 (3): 258–64. doi:10.1016/j.pec.2007.06.011. PMID 17689042.
- ^ Reed, W (1985). Positive listening: learning to hear what people are really saying.
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