It is easy to think of managerial or relationship situations where active listening should be used. People are upset, angry, or frustrated. I find the problem here is not the listening – it is the talking when the silence comes and it is your turn. What do you say? The real tendency is to solve the problem.
Carl Rogers, father of active listening in talk therapies, fed back feelings and words while the patient worked through the problem. Active listening in the workplace is similar but not the same. But the started point is. Acknowledge the feeling: “Sounds like you are pretty upset”, “You’ve had a rough day”, “I’m sorry that happened,” or whatever is appropriate to the relationship and the situation. But it is about the feeling, the affect.
Usually after you speak, the other person will elaborate. You can then ask questions that clarify followed by questions that paraphrase. I cannot say this works for everyone in every situation but I have found this general approach has worked for me as a manager and in relationships. Start with the affect.
But a more common use for active listening is routine day-to-day activities in the workplace. Your supervisor asks you to do something. Do you repeat it to be sure you understood correctly? If working virtually with people in other countries or cultures, do you repeat what they say to be sure you heard them correctly?
Active listening is hard – but it gets easier with practice. But to practice, one must see the value of active listening. My experience is that real practice helps, having someone observe and listen so you get feedback on your active listening skills. Perhaps part of the problem of active listening and learning this skill is we have to open up, we may feel more vulnerable. Confident leaders will learn to actively listen.
Sketch of Carl Rogers from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Ransom_Rogers.jpg
Used with permission: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/