Active Listening

What We've Found
Listening is something we often take for granted; of course we know how to listen! Yet to be a good listener is hard work. Because the brain works four times the rate that someone can speak, you have to actively intend to listen to understand someone’s position, feelings, or attitude. Doing public involvement activities—whether interviews, workshops, or presentations—necessitates good listening and an active resistance to inserting our own opinions. As project leaders who ask for input and people’s responses we need to practice being a willing receiver and gatherer of information about a subject before moving to interpret it or react to it. Especially in a controversial project, everyone has a need to be heard to feel understood.

Just the Facts
Active listening requires expending energy. While it may seem like a passive activity, to be an effective listener requires inner discipline and processing. All too often, distractions, attitude, or personal biases interfere with the ability to clearly hear what someone is saying. Likewise, listeners tend to decide what the outcome is going to be and how they feel about it. This kind of judgmental awareness can prevent seeing alternatives. Non-judgmental awareness is being open to different and new ideas.

Some points to keep in mind:
  • The act of listening should make a person tired; it requires that much energy and attention.
  • Changing body positions can help stop a drifting mind and enable greater concentration.
  • It takes lots of practice to be a truly good listener.
How To Do It
1. Focus on the Speaker
Establish—and keep—eye and face contact with the speaker. Reinforce what is being said is being heard through non-verbal facial expressions. To paraphrase an old saying, good listeners are like poor boxers: they lead with their faces.

2. Use Receptive Language
Follow and encourage the speaker's train of thought by using receptive language; e.g., "I see," "Hmmm," "Un huh," etc.

3. Listen for Key Words
It takes continuous action to focus on the essence of the information being shared. The listener’s mind should be actively gathering, sorting, sifting, evaluating, synthesizing, and ordering the data.

4. Respond
Verify with the speaker about the essence of what was said, especially if the thought is being captured on a flip chart or electronically for future reference. Ask questions for clarity but be cautious that the questions are not leading. Never, unless expressly requested, give an opinion on the presented information.

An Example of Active Listening
Only a few minutes into a workshop of 40 people, it was clear that one person was about to dominate the entire discussion. He was a landowner with property adjacent to a proposed project corridor, and he disagreed with the actions being taken. His outspoken negativity threatened to both convince others and squelch supporters.

The facilitator was faced with a choice: ignore the outbursts and move forward with the workshop regardless of what the landowner said or give the landowner time to vent. Not knowing what could happen, the facilitator gave the man the floor. By carefully listening to what he said, by showing openness to his opinion, and by capturing the essence of the dissenting dialogue, the facilitator gained the man’s respect. He stayed and participated in the rest of the meeting, no longer angrily trying to derail the process.
Making a conscious effort to hear, analyze, assign meaning to and respond to what another person is saying.
Use It If...
  • You need to gather information from a group of people.
  • You need to challenge expectations and perceived opinions, whether your own or someone else’s. Active listening can open new possibilities and ideas.
Forget It If...
  • You need action. At some point during every project a decision needs to be made that sufficient information exists to form a decision.
  • You are asked for your professional opinion, advice or direction.
Timing is Everything

Some form of active listening is critical throughout a project. It is especially important whenever asking for information or feedback.

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