When we speak with other people do we speak AT them or WITH them? Is it a monologue or is it a dialogue? When we participate in dialogue, do we listen to HEAR or listen to RESPOND?
Most people will, if they are honest with themselves, realize that they listen to respond. Do we automatically begin writing and editing a rebuttal script before the other person completes what they are saying? There’s a good chance there is a second monologue going on in your head WHILE you read this!
Another way to put this is to understand the difference between ACTIVE and PASSIVE listening. It is about BEHAVIOR. Listening is not just the act of hearing something but is also the process of making sense out of what we are hearing. ACTIVE listening is full engagement. We can determine if people are engaged in active listening by looking for physical cues such as nodding, smiling, eye brow or forehead responses and eye contact. The listener may ask questions, respond with non-sensible vocalizations to signify their agreement, disagreement, or understanding. This is analytical listening – it is piecing together the information that is coming at them, ordering it in their minds, placing the words and phrases in categories, and matching them with historical references throughout our own lives. If we are inclined to counsel individuals, we are engaging in active listening. Carl Rogers defines empathetic listening as “entering the private perceptual world of the other.”
What, then, is PASSIVE listening? Typically, the listener is not reacting and is not listening with the goal of responding. We may be taking in and absorbing the information. The passive listener is not necessarily NOT paying attention. We are simply absorbing.
When I speak in front of small or large groups, they are typically the passive listener. There is little two-way communication, not a lot of eye contact from the listeners, and the listener feels safe from feeling that they have to participate. This can be very helpful to the speaker because it gives that person flexibility to drive the conversation, direct the imagery, and create emotional responses.
This all sounds pretty analytical but there is something I’m trying to point out. In our everyday interaction with people it is helpful to know if we are being active or passive listeners. When the clerk asks, “how are you today?” are they listening for our response as an active participant in the dialogue or as a passive engager? More than likely, a passive engagement as they are merely on cruise control and likely following the corporate script of customer engagement. When someone approaches us with an emotional declaration such as, “I love you” or “I need to talk about something” the immediate reaction they get from us will typically set the entire tone and direction of the conversation. It will either slam the door on our availability or open it up and welcome them in to the inner circle of our undivided attention.
Counselors, especially lay-counselors (camp, church or small community helpers), are trained to face the person, not respond to other people or situations in the room, make eye contact as well as other verbal and non-verbal responses in order to establish the ground rules with a response. That response is this: I’m going to listen OR I’m not really going to listen.
The active listening test:
We can check whether people are engaged in active listening by asking questions about the content and about their emotional reaction to what was said. We can paraphrase what we heard, or ‘parrot’ back to the speaker what we believe we just heard. We can check on the perception of both listener as well as speaker by asking for confirmations, affirmations, or clarifications.
Specifically, for me, I am a very active listener when I am in Church. I grew up in an AME church and when my Pastor asked for an amen, you responded. Today, I give an “amen” without being prompted, to show my active listening and to solidify the statements within my understanding. I am sure, if you stopped and thought about it, you could think of times when you were a very active listener. Maybe with your children as they are sharing their day, or with a coworker who is discussing a concern.
We can all continue to improve our listening skills and today I want to encourage us to do that by simply being more aware of our bodies and our minds while someone is talking with us. is the inner monologues in our heads louder than the speakers’ voice? Are we solely listening to respond or are we listening to understand? There is a time and place for both these acts of obedience and it is our job to determine what is appropriate for each setting in which we find ourselves.
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