We innately know how to hear but we need to learn to listen.
While that might seem counter-intuitive, it’s like the difference between seeing words versus reading books. Overly simplified, to read (and understand) a book, we need to recognize letters, put them together into words, understand the connotation of sentences, and organize them into thoughts. It’s a process we spend years getting right.
And yet we don’t put the same effort in learning how to listen. As Mortimer J. Adler wrote in How to Speak, How to Listen:
We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of listening … training is required to bring such talent to full bloom.
Active listening is one technique which improves our ability to listen. When you are actively listening, you are focusing on the ideas the other person is trying to express – rather than just hearing the words. Active listening is difficult because you have to contain your ego long enough to carefully consider what has been said and how it has been said – rather than thinking about what you can say next. Rapid response is the enemy of active listening.
While there are many models (here & here as examples), the primary components of active listening are comprehending and responding. Both of these components are the responsibility of the listener, not the speaker. If the speaker doesn’t use clear communication, the active listener can improve their own comprehension using the Feyman Learning Technique and asking the speaker to “explain it in language a twelve-year old would understand.”
After comprehending the speaker, the listener provides an active response. The important elements of an active response are paraphrasing, expressing empathy, using engaged body language, and avoiding judgement or advice. An active response shows the listener paid attention to what the speaker said, understood their words, and interpreted their non-verbal cues.
Like almost every other skill, you don’t get better at active listening just by reading about it. You have to practice active listening. Repeatedly. Practice works equally well in your personal or professional life.
Hearing may be an innate skill but listening is not. Take the time to learn to listen.