Active listening is a skill that can benefit anyone, all the time. The huge majority of most people’s day is spent interacting with others – what better way to improve our performance than by making sure we are truly paying attention to those interactions?
Active listening is not a difficult skill to acquire. It is not simply listening, but concentrating on the action of listening. Our culture has built multi-tasking into such an integral part of society that we never focus on one thing anymore. Texting, watching TV, and talking to your ex-girlfriend on Facebook all at the same time is a pretty common occurrence.
Active listening means focusing on only one thing – the conversation you’re having. There are four steps to effective active listening. I’ll use the example of a suicidal 911 caller.
Keep in mind the basic premise of communication – there is a sender, and a receiver. The sender is the one with the message, the receiver is the listener.
In the example conversation, I have been told by a 55 year old female that she’s thinking about suicide. She lives in the south-west corner of the county, so I’ve got a good 15-20 minutes to talk to her before deputies arrive. I’ve already got the important questions out of the way (do you have a plan, are there any weapons in the house, have you hurt yourself yet). Now I’m moving on to the active listening phase, to try to build a rapport with the caller.
1. Clarifying: Seeking additional information. Typically this means asking them to elaborate on a statement, or just asking them specific questions.
Me: Rita, what do you mean when you say you don’t want to be here anymore?
Rita: My husband died last year, none of my kids talk to me, and I lost my job this week.
2. Paraphrasing: Parrot back what they said to you in your own words. It tells the other party you’re receiving their message clearly.
Me: So you’re saying you don’t think there’s anything left for you here.
3. Reflecting Feelings: Acknowledging that you recognize their feelings, and that they are valid.
Me: Sounds like you must be pretty lonely, Rita.
Rita: That’s for damn sure. I raised those four kids and none of them even make the effort to call and see how I’m doing. And now without Ted, and no job, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it.
Me: I’d be pretty scared if that were me.
Rita: You’re damn right it’s scary! Now what am I supposed to do?
4. Summarizing: Pretty self-explanatory. This means summarizing not just the factual issues, but their emotional ones as well.
Me: That must be hard. I have a 4 month-old, my first, and it’s already a LOT of work. It must be tough, raising four children and feeling so abandoned by them. And not knowing how you’re going to make ends meet can make me feel pretty powerless.
I’m now relating with Rita in a way that would be impossible if I didn’t use the Active Listening techniques. And there’s nothing complicated to them. You don’t even have to remember the four steps – just remember to listen closely, repeat things back to them, and try to understand how they’re feeling.
These skills aren’t useful just for emergencies – they’re helpful in every-day situations. Talking to your spouse, resolving conflict with a coworker, or helping a friend work through a tough situation; all can benefit from an active listener.
Papa C. is a 911 Dispatcher for a metro Sheriff’s Office. He has been working in public safety for 4 years, and prior to that worked in television production. He has experience and training in general communication, crisis resolution, domestic intervention, and hostage negotiation.