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Active Listening

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and then repeats, in the listener's own words, what he or she thinks the speaker has said.

Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Often when people talk to each other, they don't listen attentively. They are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else. When people are engaged in a conflict, they are often busy formulating a response to what is being said. They assume that they have heard what their opponent is saying many times before, so rather than paying attention, they focus on how they can respond to win the argument.

Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and then repeats, in the listener's own words, what he or she thinks the speaker has said. The listener does not have to agree with the speaker–he or she must simply state what they think the speaker said. This enables the speaker to find out whether the listener really understood. If the listener did not, the speaker can explain some more.

Often, the listener is encouraged to interpret the speaker's words in terms of feelings. Thus, instead of just repeating what happened, the active listener might add "I gather that you felt angry or frustrated or confused when… [a particular event happened]." Then the speaker can go beyond confirming that the listener understood what happened, but can indicate that he or she also understood the speaker's psychological response to it.

Our reflection should arise out of a sense of genuine curiosity: "What I think I'm hearing you say is [X, Y, Z, etc.] Am I getting that right?" [or "Am I anywhere near right?"]. We should be very interested in any clarifications or expansions the person may have. There's a humility involved, a realization that we may well not have it right, and a genuine desire to know.

Sometimes (as in Dynamic Facilitation) this is combined with chart pad recording. In this case, it becomes easy to fold active listening into our note-taker role: "Check what I've written here [then read it out loud]. Does that capture the essence of what you're saying?"

Also we can go beyond just saying "I hear you're frustrated." We can include the sense of frustration in how we reflect what they said; we can actually take on the frustrated role, using the language, emotion, tone of voice and body language that a frustrated person would use. This helps them feel we're really "with them," getting not only what they said but "where they're at."

Active listening has several benefits. First, it forces people to listen attentively to others. Second, it avoids misunderstandings, as people have to confirm that they do really understand what another person has said. Third, it tends to open people up, to get them to say more. When people are in conflict, they often contradict each other, denying the opponent=s description of a situation. This tends to make people defensive, and they will either lash out, or withdraw and say nothing more. However, if they feel that their opponent is really attuned to their concerns and wants to listen, they are likely to explain in detail what they feel and why. If both parties to a conflict do this, the chances of being able to develop a solution to their mutual problem becomes much greater.

Adapted from a listing on the website of the Conflict Research Consortium of the University of Colorado and a listing on the NCDD wiki.

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