Active Listening: A Way to Change the World

If I could do one thing to change the world, it would be to teach a critical mass of people how to engage in active listening. Active listening is when an individual is fully engaged to the verbal and nonverbal points that a communicator is sharing. It means not preparing what you are about to say or assuming you know what the person is about to say before it is said. Instead, it involves pausing to take in each message and summarizing that message before responding. If you’re actively listening then the conversation will look and feel different. The response time to what someone is saying will be slower. For me, I usually need to have a notebook to write down my thoughts to focus on the speaker rather than rehearsing my thoughts while apparently listening (or worse yet, jumping in the middle of their sentence … ugh!).

Not too long ago, I had an “aha” moment about the transformative nature of active listening. I was invited to facilitate a group of 20 individuals about standardizing evaluation expectations for their grantees. After allowing each individual to share about their expectations for the work session, I began to engage the group in conversation. I listen intensely to understand what was said. When there was a natural pause, I would summarize what was said by saying, “What I heard you say was … is that correct?” or “I understand that … is very challenging” or “It sounds like you’re very excited about …” The group naturally was able to come to agreement on several key components. Of course, there were a couple tense moments in which someone would share a thought that was probably shared a dozen times, and someone else would quickly respond, as they probably had a dozen times. In those moments, I summarized what the concern was from each person’s perspective. Often the concerns shared by each person was supported by the “opposing” person. In other words, it sounded and was treated like a disagreement but they really weren’t disagreeing.

During the entire session, I didn’t really say much. I even went to the client and explained that while it may not have looked like I was doing much, I was actually doing a lot (and she said she knew I was)! Once the work session was over, a number of individuals shared that the work session was one of the most productive meetings they had ever had!

Why was actively listening transformative? Because often in arguments and conflicts, the real problem is that the individuals are not understood. When we feel understood and supported for that perspective, we can let go of our position, and focus on solving-problems. Moreover, when we truly understand someone else’s concerns, better solutions are identified. One of the reasons that clients report having a positive experience with our team is because we actively listen to them and can offer better solutions to their struggles and approaches to telling their story. I suppose doing so is our way of actually taking steps to change the world, one client at a time.