Over the years, many people have developed techniques to help them listen better. One technique I learned at work is Active Listening. For me it was a revelation, since I’d never thought of listening as a skill before. Active Listening is intended for situations where another person comes to you with a problem. It may not be appropriate in other situations
The Technique of Active Listening
Active listening involves three stages.
- The first step is to hear what the other person says. In this stage, you need to pay attention to what the person says. In addition, it is important to be aware of the way it is said and non-verbal clues that add to the meaning of what is said. While the objective is to understand what they have said, it is not necessary at this stage to fully accomplish that.
- The second is to interpret and understand what they said. In this stage you take what you learned from what they said and in your own mind determine what is the message they want you to hear. That message may not be direct or clear. It may not be what the speaker consciously means to say. Again, it is not necessary at this stage to completely understand what the person says.
- The third, and most important, step is to respond to what the person said. The purpose of your response is two fold. First, you want to confirm that you understand what the other person said. You do this by repeating what they said in your own words and asking them is that is what they meant. This reinforces your understanding and helps you remember what they said. The second purpose is to demonstrate to the other person that you heard what they said and that you understand it. This will make them more comfortable and thus more open in what they say.
Dangers of Active Listening
Active listening is a skill and you must practice it to do it well. Done improperly, it can hamper rather than aid communication.
One fault I had was to slip into a formulaic response. It is an easy mistake to make. In my experience, a formulaic response can turn people off. It can make the other person suspect that you are not paying attention. They may shut down and withdraw.
Another mistake is to express your response as advice or your opinion. It may be that the person wants your advice or opinion. The danger is that if you fail to listen you will give the wrong advice because you don’t understand the question well enough. Premature advice may also discourage the speaker from talking.
Don’t be too quick to decide what the problem is. It is not unusual for people avoid asking directly about their problem. They may want to get advice without admitting they have a problem. They may not be clear in their own minds what their problem is.
Another danger of premature advice is that many times people want a sympathetic ear rather than advice.
If you have an opinion about what the person says, there is a danger that your response can become judgemental. When you listen, your objective is to understand what the other person has to say. To do so, you must avoid any judgement of what they say. This is not the same as agreeing to what they say. You can express your disagreement later.
Since you often restate what the speaker said, there is a danger that they can take what you said as agreement or support. When they find out later that you don’t agree they may feel betrayed.
Active Listening in Stories
I built my story The Crying Woman around a conversation where one of the characters uses active listening. One of the reasons I wrote the story was to take advantage of my experience with the technique. I don’t consider it a complete success. I haven’t needed to use it much lately and my skills got rusty.
To add some conflict, I had the listener make some mistakes, which he then had to correct. In part that was because he has something he wants to talk about too. He tries to practice the adage of listen first, and then talk. That proves to be difficult for him to do.
Active listening would not be appropriate for every story. One character must have a problem and feel that the other character will help. The other character must be willing to listen and if need be, help.
The technique could be useful in exposition. The danger of exposition is a dialogue is to bore people with a long character monologue, or a “As you know Bob …” speech.
In one of the stories I have in the works, I have a character named Bob, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to have another character start a conversation with “As you know Bob …”.
With a technique like active listening, the monologue can be broken out into a dialogue where an active listener draws out the exposition from a reluctant speaker. The revelation can become a small story in itself.