||This article contains weasel words: vague phrasing that often accompanies biased or unverifiable information. (March 2014)|
Active listening is a communication technique used in counselling, training and conflict resolution, which requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.
Comprehension is "shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction". This is the first step in the listening process. The second challenge is being able to discern breaks between discernible words, or speech segmentation. This becomes significantly more difficult with an unfamiliar language because the speech sounds blend together into a continuous jumble.
This is the second step in the listening process. Memory is essential to the listening process because the information we retain when involved in the listening process is how we create meaning from words. We depend on our memory to fill in the blanks when we're listening. Because everyone has different memories, the speaker and the listener may attach different meanings to the same statement. However, our memories are fallible and we can't remember everything that we've ever listened to. There are many reasons why we forget some information that we've received. The first is cramming. When you cram there is a lot of information entered into your short term memory. Shortly after cramming, when you don't need the information anymore, it is purged from your brain before it can be transferred into your long term memory. The second reason is that you aren't paying attention when you receive the information. Alternatively, when you receive the information you may not attach importance to it, so it loses its meaning. A fourth reason is at the time the information was received you lacked motivation to listen carefully to better remember it. Using information immediately after receiving it enhances information retention and lessens the forgetting curve (the rate at which we no longer retain information in our memory). Retention is lessened when we engage in mindless listening, where little effort is made to listen to a speaker's message. Mindful listening is active listening.
Active listening involves the listener observing the speaker's behavior and body language. Having the ability to interpret a person's body language lets the listener develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker's message. Having heard, the listener may then paraphrase the speaker's words. It is important to note that the listener is not necessarily agreeing with the speaker—simply stating what was said.
Individuals in conflict often contradict each other. Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else's argument for its weaknesses and ignore its strengths. This may include a distortion of the speaker’s argument to gain a competitive advantage. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created.
In the book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the term "active listening," states "Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. ... Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task ..."
Active listening is used in a wide variety of situations, including public interest advocacy, community organizing, tutoring, medical workers talking to patients, HIV counseling, helping suicidal persons, management, counseling and journalistic settings. In groups it may aid in reaching consensus. It may also be used in casual conversation or small talk to build understanding, though this can be interpreted as condescending.
A listener can use several degrees of active listening, each resulting in a different quality of communication.
The proper use of active listening results in getting people to open up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict, and building trust. In a medical context, benefits may include increased patient satisfaction, improved cross-cultural communication, improved outcomes, or decreased litigation.
Active listening can be lifted by the active listening observation scale.
Barriers to active listening
Such barriers include distractions, trigger words, vocabulary, and limited attention span.
Listening barriers may be psychological (e.g. emotions) or physical (e.g. noise and visual distraction).
The first of these is the shift response which is the general tendency in a conversation to affix the attention to you. This is a type of conversational narcissism; the tendency of listeners to turn the topic of conversations to themselves without showing sustained interest in others listening. A support response is the opposite of a shift response; it is an attention giving method and a cooperative effort to focus the conversational attention on the other person. Instead of being me-oriented like shift response, it is we-oriented. It is the response most likely to be used by a competent communicator
Overcoming listening barriers
To use the active listening technique to improve interpersonal communication, one puts personal emotions aside during the conversation, asks questions and paraphrases back to the speaker to clarify understanding, and one also tries to overcome all types of environment distractions. Judging or arguing prematurely is a result of holding onto a strict personal opinion. This hinders the ability to be able to listen closely to what is being said. Eye contact and appropriate body languages are seen as important components to active listening. The stress and intonation may also keep them active and away from distractions.
Misconceptions about listening
There are several misconceptions about listening. We have no control over what we hear. Listening on the other hand is an active process that constructs meaning from both verbal and nonverbal messages.
Active listening in music
Active Listening has been developed as a concept in music and technology by François Pachet, researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratory, Paris. Active listening in music refers to the idea that listeners can be given some degree of control on the music they listen to, by means of technological applications mainly based on artificial intelligence and information theory techniques, by opposition to traditional listening, in which the musical media is played passively by some neutral device 
A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active listening techniques in the context of couple's therapy, the typical couple was still distressed. Active listening was criticized by John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as being of limited usefulness: "Active listening asks couples to perform emotional Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk. . . . After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this approach to counseling doesn't work, not just because it's nearly impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed. One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they're upset."
Robert F. Scuka defends active listening by arguing that "a careful reading of the Hahlweg et al. (1984) study reveals that Gottman cites only certain (one-sided) results from the study. He also overlooks several important considerations that call into question his implied dismissal of the RE model as a legitimate therapeutic intervention for distressed couples."
- Appreciative listening
- Auditory processing disorder
- Four-sides model
- Informational listening
- Nonviolent Communication
- Reflective listening
- Workplace listening
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- Empathic listening skills How to listen so others feel heard, or listening first aid (University of California). Download a one hour seminar on empathic listening and attending skills.
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