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A close up of a man's ear. He holds his hand up to it to indicate that he's listening.

Active listening

We can all listen. We do it every day so we must be good at it, right?

Try starting up a conversation with somebody and listening to them for a while, then try to remember what was said. It’s more difficult than you think and the chances are you will only remember about half of what was said because we get distracted.

Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to concentrate, understand, respond and remember what is being said. To improve your listening skills when networking, practice making a conscious effort to not just hear the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, to understand the complete message. In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully. You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by anything else that may be going on around you, or by thinking about your reply to them. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored and lose focus on what the other person is saying.

Sender-Response

The ‘Sender-Response’ model of communication is a common sense way of understanding the process of active listening, and emphasises the danger of ‘noise’ from distractions or misunderstanding. However, it fails to express the two-way nature of active listening, where part of what the listener does is to ‘feed back’ to the sender through recognition, mirroring, positive reinforcing and paraphrasing.

Transmission flow, left to right: Sender, encodes, Signal, decodes, Receiver. Below this noise channels interfere at each stage. Sender-Response model of communication

Recognition

Give something back, a little bit of recognition in the form of a head nod or occasional ‘uh huh’ lets the speaker know that you are still listening and helps keep you focused. As you heard earlier, nodding, smiling and maintaining eye contact also do this.

Mirroring

Mirroring of facial expressions and any other body language used by the speaker can be a sign of attentive listening and helps build rapport quickly. Suggesting that you consciously adopt a similar posture or facial expression to the speaker’s might sound as if we are advocating being manipulative or insincere. But, if you observe people in naturally-occurring conversations you will see that they somehow seem to fall naturally into postures and use facial expressions that mirror each other. It’s a sign there is empathy and rapport – that they are on the same wavelength. So the next time you have the opportunity, try to subtly mirror an aspect of the body language of someone you are talking to and see how effective it is in promoting your attentive listening. At the very least, it will encourage you to exercise self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy in a way which should promote a more emotionally-intelligent encounter.

Positive reinforcement

As you learned in the previous step, occasionally dropping in positive words such as ‘absolutely’ or ‘indeed’ gives the speaker some positive reinforcement; but don’t overdo it!

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is when you repeat back key pieces of information that the speaker has said, but in your own words. This demonstrates not only that you were listening, but that you have understood the speaker. It helps the speaker to be sure you have got the message and gives them an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. Furthermore, the cognitive processing involved in paraphrasing will help you internalise and remember what they have said.

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This article is from the free online course:

Business Fundamentals: Effective Networking

The Open University