Photo: Alarna Cross
Active Listening

Active Listening

Have you ever tried to do something about a problem before you really understood the problem itself? It usually doesn’t improve the situation.
Similarly, you need to understand a client’s concern or complaint before you can address it. Effective questioning and listening are strategies for getting to the crux of a problem. This is especially the case with client complaints. Even what appear to be trivial complaints can develop into something of significance, so you must ensure that you have the correct facts. When you are dealing with client complaints, it is critical that you listen carefully to the facts.

What does active listening mean?


Have you ever ‘tuned out’ when a person is complaining to you? Consider what may happen if someone at work is making a complaint that has serious consequences, or if the person making the complaint is a senior manager?
When you’re dealing with clients, you can’t tune out. It’s vital that you listen carefully and respond appropriately. To do this, people often use a technique called active listening.
Active listening occurs when you focus on the message you’re receiving from the other person, without thinking about what you want to say next. Your response to the sender is one that paraphrases what you’ve heard. That is, you summarise what you’ve heard, and say it back to the sender in your words. This ensures that you have understood the idea the sender wants to give you.

Key principles of active listening

Do you sometimes come away from a conversation thinking that the other person didn’t really say much? Perhaps you were guilty of not listening actively! One of the key principles of active listening is allowing the other person to talk freely.
However, be aware of spending too much time discussing what is not relevant to the task at hand. Below are more principles of active listening that aim to encourage the other person.

Do more listening than talking.
Give the other person time to talk. Show that you are interested in what they have to say.
Show encouragement.
Use non-verbal as well as verbal cues to show you are listening. For example, maintain eye contact, nod, sit upright and say ‘yes’ or ‘I see’ at appropriate places, and use a positive tone of voice.
Avoid appearing tense.
For example, avoid sitting with arms and legs tightly crossed and speaking in a hurried and agitated tone of voice.
Try not to agree or disagree right away.
If you feel you have to disagree, wait until the other person has explained and then disagree, but provide reasons for your stand.
Show empathy.
Imagine yourself in the other person’s position. Respond to their feelings.
Be ‘other-directed’.
In other words, don’t project your feelings or ideas on them.
Be accepting of the other person.
This means being non-judgmental and non-discriminatory.
Be non-defensive.
Instead, admit any errors or oversights on the part of yourself or your organisation and apologise for that.
Paraphrase (summarise) what the speaker is saying.
In other words, restate key facts, issues, perceptions and interpretations. When you receive a client request, even a simple one, it’s important to check that you’ve understood it correctly.
Be aware of the other person’s sensitivities.
If you need to ask questions of a sensitive nature, ask them in a gentle, polite and supportive manner and tone of voice. Assure confidentiality. Wait for the right time to ask as well — that is, when the other person is relaxed and you have gained their confidence.
Reflect every now and again on what the other person is saying.
For example, you might say: ‘So you were quite upset by that behaviour because you felt that it was quite unfair?’ This shows the other person that you understand how they feel and that their concerns and feelings are valid.
Show warmth and support.
Smile, where appropriate. Look concerned. Avoid being cold or abrupt.
Admit it when you’re lost.
Avoid pretending to understand. Simply say something such as: ‘Sorry, could you just say that again?’ Clarify anything you don’t understand. This lets the other know that you have been listening and that you understand what they’re saying.

You’ll need to wait for an appropriate situation to arise to practise your active listening, but such situations arise more frequently than you’d think. Reflect on these principles and make a genuine attempt to practise them — it may not be easy, at first.
An alternative to this might be to carry out a role play, but you’ll need to find a partner — say a fellow student, family member or friend. Set up a particular situation in which your partner can play the role of a client asking you for help. You can then practise active listening techniques in handling the situation. You may also be able to do this via a telephone or chat facility.

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Department of Education and Training NSW