Understanding Active Listening and its benefits

A job interview is a very peculiar place where you get to witness myriad hues of human personality. While you have the interviewing panel huddled together, eager to grill (and sometimes roast!) the candidates, the candidates have their own apprehensions and anxieties to deal with. At one such panel I was a part of as a hiring manager, we interviewed around 10 candidates that day. After about 7 to 8 candidates had moved out of the room, we had begun to feel exhausted with the repetitive questions and the monotonous well-prepared answers by almost all of them.

Then came a young man with simple attire. However, his demeanor spelled something different. He knocked well, waited to be seated, pulled the chair standing upright and without any noise, sat straight and didn’t move his body at all. No fidgeting, no touching the face with hands, all the while maintaining positive body language and eye contact. We were pleasantly surprised to see such a well-mannered software developer. At the end of the interview, I asked him about his family background, which was when his eyes twinkled a bit. He said he was the son of an army man and he had lost his father in war. His voice became sharper as he told how he had prepared to join the armed forces but lost out due to a tad poor eyesight. His body spoke the language of a soldier and to someone who could observe closely, one would have missed him for actually being one.

What happened that day was that our active listening skills came into picture and we could find a gem of an employee who went on to achieve great success in our company. Though he never mentioned that he had prepared for the armed forces, we could somehow spot that he belonged to the proud army fraternity. I have seen many such instances when active listening skills have provided better insights into a situation than mere hearing.

What is active listening?

When we hear, our ears simply record the sound that is being produced outside as a stimulus. But when we’re actively listening, we listen more with our eyes than with our ears. That is because we capture not just the nuances of tone and voice, we also observe the body language which speaks louder than words do.

Experts says active listening is all about intent and being in sync with the other person. When you listen with full focus on what the person is saying, how is he/she saying it and what he/she wishes to convey from it, you get a clearer picture about the entire thing. Many times, as parents, we miss out on what the kids try to tell us but are not able to, owing to their limited vocabulary and sensory identities. But most of the times, parents just need to observe the kid and try and actively listen to him to understand his real problem.

I remember attending a kids party on a Christmas few years ago. A small boy who came to our home to play with the kids never accepted any eatable that we offered him. At the same time, he would keep staring at the food laid out on the table, especially the fruit and the sweets (common in most homes of Indian families). Upon observing him doing so, I could speak to him and understand that he refused food because his mom had told him not to eat anywhere outside his home. But the smell of the sweets tickled his taste buds. When we assured him that we would speak to his mother, he did in fact, have some sweet and was really blushing that day! The same is true with people of all ages. One needs to listen with full intent of really knowing what the person is saying rather than merely hearing his words that don’t quite register in your mind.

Benefits of indulging in active listening

  • It allows you deeper insights than possible with mere words of the speaker
  • It enables you to connect and develop a bond of trust with the speaker so that he/she expresses freely
  • It shows respect for what the person is trying to convey
  • At the workplace, active listening allows you to gather all the information needed for a particular project or assignment so that you don’t have to approach someone again and again for clarifications. That helps complete tasks in time.
  • People who listen actively gel well within groups and are more empathetic. This is because they have picked up what the other one is trying to convey without words too. Such people go on to become great leaders.
  • Couples who practice active listen have a healthier relationship because there are no misunderstandings between them. It makes both partners feel loved and wanted, something so crucial to a relationship.
  • Parents who are active listeners are aligned with their kids’ lives. They know what the kid is feeling and why in a particular situation and don’t jump to conclusion with preconceived notions.
  • Active listeners are rarely judgmental. They appear to be respectful to others and allow people to speak their hearts out before joining in.
  • When one listens actively, he/she can better recall what was spoken by someone. That is because your ears, eyes and body is in tune with the speaker and picks up more clues than if you would just hear.

How can one be an active listener?

  • When in a conversation, always face the person who is speaking and give him/her your undivided attention (read: don’t keep checking your mobile or glance at your watch)
  • Nod your head at intervals to show you have understood what he/she is trying to say
  • Show your emotions on your face through expressions, like a smile, a raised eyebrow, a quick nod or a lowered head.
  • Stop and ask appropriate questions to seek more clarity. That also shows you have been intently listening all the while and encourages the speaker
  • Look into the eyes of the person who is speaking. Looking away takes out the focus from the conversation.

In a world where time is a rare commodity, one must consider active listening not as something that prevents you from doing something else while listening but an act that reaps benefits in the long run.

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