Active Listening: Is it a Bad Idea?
Active Listening is a communication technique which encourages the listener provides feedback to the speaker by re-stating or paraphrasing, in his own words, what the listener heard. The goal is not only to demonstrate sincerity by letting the speaker know that the listener was paying attention, but also to make sure there is mutual understanding between the two and that nothing has been erroneously assumed or taken for granted.
Some also interpret Active Listening to suggest that you should also provide feedback on things beyond the actual words the speaker is using, such as interpreting their body language to infer what emotions they are feeling.
One of the communication challenges that Active Listening was intended to overcome is that people can process information quicker than they speak. That means the listener has free time that must be filled until the speaker finishes talking. Many people fill this free time with distractions or by thinking about what they want to say next instead of making sure they understand the speaker’s message.
As much as I applaud the goals behind Active Listening, there are aspects of the technique that can actually work to your disadvantage.
The idea that you should listen attentively to the other person is the real strength behind the Active Listening technique. You obviously need to listen attentively to provide the level of feedback the technique requires. That also means you will be trying to understand the speaker’s intent rather than daydreaming, allowing other distractions, or formulating your response instead of listening to the speaker.
So, why would I suggest that Active Listening as commonly practiced might be a bad idea?
Here are the top pitfalls that I believe undermine the effectiveness of the Active Listening technique:
- Paraphrasing can lead to misunderstanding. The words (labels) people use are important to them. When you paraphrase or respond in your own words, not only are you ignoring labels that may be important to the speaker, but you are also using new labels that the speaker may assign a completely different meaning.
- In addition, you may be mis-matching the speakers preferred communication style (see my previous post “MLM Prospecting: Are You Speaking Your Prospect’s Language?“). Either of these can break rapport with the other person and increase the potential for misunderstanding.
- Trying to infer the other person’s emotion state from their body language is also problematic. For example, it is comfortable for me to sit with my arms folded across my chest, even when I’m with people with whom I have a very close, caring relationship. However, if you read the books on interpreting body language, they will all tell you that my body language indicates I am closed off and, at best, uninterested in what you’re saying. Unless you are sure you have accurately calibrated to the individual your speaking with, the odds are good your “mind read” will be wrong.
- Even if you get the emotional state right, there’s a good chance you will use a label other than the one the other person uses to describe that state; that’s another rapport breaker and another opportunity for misunderstanding.
Try This Instead of Active Listening
Instead of repeating what you thought the speaker said in your own words, repeat it back using the same words they used. That way, you’ll be matching the labels that are important to them while using their preferred communication style and increasing your rapport with them as a result.
Then, ask questions. If you’re unsure what they mean by a word they used or if you want to make sure your substitute means the same thing to them, ask. This will both demonstrate that you sincerely want to understand their message and continue to build rapport between the two of you.
Being aware of their body language is great, but use it to further build rapport instead of trying to infer their emotional state. Matching their body language and gestures, breathing, vocal quality, even their blink rate, will all add to their feeling of rapport.
Then, ask questions. If you sense an emotional state that might be important to your discussion, you can always ask how they feel about whatever you’re talking about. That way, they get to respond as they choose rather than trying to decide if they agree with your characterization of how they feel.
It may be the case that some highly skilled communicators can make Active Listening work for them. But, for the rest of us these alternatives are likely to lead to more clarity in our conversations. And, I suspect even those who have used Active Listening successfully in the past will benefit from this new approach.
I would love to hear your feedback on which works better for you.
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