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The shortfalls of Active Listening

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about Active Listening. That is, listening that's focused on the speaker, making sure they feel heard and understood. It uses verbal and physical affirmation from listener to speaker, and is commonly used in areas like counselling, training, management, conflict resolution, community consultation, and even journalism.

I think the intention of this originally was to come into your listening interaction from an empathetic stand point - to show your speaker that you're with them and you understand. The elements of active listening differ a little depending on what you read, but essentially at its core it's about understanding, remembering and responding to what the speaker is saying.

Unfortunately over time, things have become a little cloudy - many articles now focus on the verbal and physical response techniques (e.g. mirroring, eye contact, "yes, I understand", "indeed", posture, etc), which alone can be irritating and frankly useless if they don't come from an intention of genuine empathy and understanding. It can be all too easy to get caught up in the tasks and lose authenticity (some refer to this as simply "reflective listening").

If carried out properly, Active Listening can still be a useful style for situations that are about that moment, when the most important thing about the conversation is supporting the speaker. For example, this is the kind of listening you might use when supporting a friend through a break up. The detail is less important than your friend feeling heard, loved and supported.

It might also be a good style to apply if you are a HR professional dealing with a conflict resolution - but here's where it gets interesting. Unlike the break-up, in this situation there is a larger listening context than just the speaker and the listener.

Where Active Listening falls short is in interactions when the information the listener receives has a practical application beyond that specific interaction.

Let's take the HR conflict resolution as an example. While it is absolutely necessary to enter that situation practising an empathetic style of listening - ensuring the speaker feels heard and that you've understand what they've said - there's more to this story. The speaker is not the only stakeholder in this conversation. What needs to happen as a result of this interaction? On who's behalf are you listening (e.g. your boss? the rest of the staff? the other party involved in the conflict?)? How will this information be used? What are the important elements of the conversation to remember, and how are you capturing them?

There's a whole listening universe out there that needs to be taken into account to ensure your listening skills are not only coming from an empathetic place, but a useful one.

There are countless examples for where this style of listening applies - a project briefing with a client, attending a conference, a doctor's appointment, a planning workshop… Any situation where the information needs to have a greater lifespan than just from speaker's mouth to listener's ears.

This is what I call Practical Listening. It's an outcomes-based approach that focuses on who and what you are listening for, and how to best tune into, capture and remember what's important.

By taking the time to put yourself in the shoes of the end user, identifying what's important to them, and setting some intentions around what you're listening for, you're able to give the speaker's voice the utility and longevity it deserves.

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