The Basic Idea
Have you ever zoned out while someone is talking? Found yourself communicating without really being aware of what the other person is saying? While it’s easy to find ourselves in these moments of distraction, an attentive approach to a speaker’s verbal and non-verbal forms of communication can make interactions more meaningful and effective.
Active listening is a communication technique that involves giving free and undivided attention to the speaker. Although on the surface this seems like a straightforward skill, it scarcely occurs during everyday discussions, as people tend to focus more on their opportunity to speak. Active listening, on the other hand, is a challenging task requiring intense concentration on what a speaker is conveying, or attempting to convey.
Theory, meet practice
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Active listening emerged from early 1940’s research into what made an effective counselor. This inquiry, largely led by Carl Rogers and his colleagues in clinical psychology, endeavored to understand why some counselors were better than others at addressing their client’s personal problems. They discovered that those who listened more than they talked were more effective. Until then, helping people with their personal problems was believed to require asking probing questions, giving information, advising, judging, analyzing, and reassuring.2 These techniques would later become barriers to active listening.
In 1957, Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term active listening, in a short book presenting the method as one that “requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”3 Rogers and Farson claimed that people who are listened to in this “new and special way” in turn become more emotionally mature and less defensive as they are better able to listen to themselves and understand what they are feeling and thinking.
Thomas Gordon, a colleague of Rogers, promoted active listening as a communication skill through his Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) program in 1962. Gordon went on to publish a book on the P.E.T. in 1970,4 where his ideas became widely popularized as a form of modern parenting philosophy. Gordon also later created a list of 12 roadblocks to communication that included many of the traditional strategies once thought to be crucial to helping people, such as advising and supporting.
An American psychologist who has often been credited with helping bring a human-centered approach to psychology, Rogers’ work gave rise to a number of humanistic concepts in psychology, including active listening. In an objective analysis looking at variables such as citation frequency and attained awards, Rogers emerged as the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.5 In addition to his academic acclaim, Rogers was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work on international conflict resolution.
Gordon was a graduate student at Ohio State University when he became inspired by the work of Carl Rogers. The two eventually became colleagues, with Gordon becoming known for his work on the Gordon Model and the P.E.T. program, where the active listening technique was further developed. His book on the P.E.T. has sold over five million copies, garnering international recognition. Like Rogers, Gordon was also a nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize for work on conflict resolution.
With roots in parenting strategies, active listening has been promoted in educational settings both as a technique for students and teachers to build on.6 Active listening has also caught the attention of many industry professionals, having been regarded as a soft skill that is sought after by employers among the likes of critical thinking and problem-solving.7 The technique has been touted as a way for salespeople to build rapport and has even been incorporated into AI products, with Oracle offering sessions on how to implement active listening when building chatbots.
Active listening sounds like a nice ideal but how does it measure up in the literature? A 2014 study looked at the interactions between 115 participants and 10 “actors” who were trained in active listening. The researchers found that the participants in the active listening condition felt more understood and were more satisfied with the conversation than the participants who received advice or simple acknowledgments.8
It might be easy to imagine scenarios where active listening is probably not the best avenue to take. For example, collaborative and innovative environments may benefit from several of the 12 roadblocks to communication outlined by Thomas Gordon, such as logic and criticizing. Moreover, many intellectual discussions would be limited in their scope if pure listening is prioritized over debating, challenging, and questioning a speaker.
Of course, few proponents of active listening would suggest that the technique should be applied to all conversations and discussions. There is certainly a time and place where active listening is appropriate and a time and place where it isn’t. With these communication strategies that have evolved from the domain of clinical psychology, it’s no surprise that active listening is predominantly associated with more interpersonal interactions.
Some in the counseling realm still have criticisms over the skill, however. John Gottman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin and an influential relationship therapist, refutes active listening’s ability to help close relationships. In a blog post from The Gottman Institute – a research-oriented organization aimed at helping relationships – active listening is listed as a “myth” in regard to its efficacy in helping relationships, claiming the research suggests that couples are still distressed after applying the technique. The Institute writes: “Active listening requires Olympic-gold-medal-emotional performances. The idea expects you to swim in a pool of emotional criticism next to Michael Phelps. So, for example, even though Susan may do her best to hear Steve’s complaints, the person he is whining about isn’t a spectator in their marriage – it’s her husband – and behind all those ‘I’ statements is her!”9
Active Listening in Healthcare
A 2016 study by a group of Iranian researchers looked at how good hospital managers were at active listening.10 They found that top managers actually exhibited weaker active listening skills than middle managers, while the worst active listening skill across all managers was avoiding interruption. Consistent with previous literature, they also found that active listening skills were stronger among women compared to men. Although the study didn’t explore the effects of an active listening intervention, the authors cited research on how active listening skills among hospital managers has been associated with patients exposing their concerns and is a much-needed implementation directed at patient-centered healthcare.
Strong patient communication is integral to adequate patient care. In addition to hospital managers, it’s clear that active listening is also relevant to other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, as patients often feel they aren’t being listened to. A study published in 2018 found that only 36% of patients were asked about the reason for their visit, with this figure dropping to 20% for specialty care. Furthermore, in the few cases where the clinician did elicit the patient’s agenda, the patient was interrupted by the clinician after an average of 11 seconds.11
Volvo’s Design Around Me Program
The Swedish automobile manufacturer partnered with Microsoft to create a digital workplace built upon active listening as a way to improve their employee experience. According to Marie-Louise Bergh Converse, an HR Director at Volvo, the program started with “a policy that says, ‘Don’t sit at headquarters and think you know what people want.’ If we don’t put ourselves inside different employees’ journeys, from managers to factory-floor workers, we’ll never improve the overall workplace experience.” The platform allows for the collection of feedback from local offices under the aim of creating a workplace where employees feel valued.12
- Robertson, K. (2005). Active listening: more than just paying attention. Australian family physician, 34(12), 1053.
- Parent Effectiveness. (2017, June). History of Active Listening by Dr. Thomas Gordon [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcwjbvA4i08
- Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active listening. Chicago, IL: Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago.
- Gordon, T. 1975. P.E.T.: Parent effectiveness training, New York, NY: New American Library.
- Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., … & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139-152.
- Jalongo, M. R. (1995). Promoting active listening in the classroom. Childhood Education, 72(1), 13-18.
- Doyle, A. (2020, May). Important Active Listening Skills and Techniques. The Balance Careers. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/active-listening-skills-with-examples-2059684
- Weger Jr, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.
- Benson, K. (2016, August). 4 Marriage Myths That Cause Divorce [Blog Post]. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/4-marriage-myths-cause-divorce/
- Jahromi, V. K., Tabatabaee, S. S., Abdar, Z. E., & Rajabi, M. (2016). Active listening: The key of successful communication in hospital managers. Electronic physician, 8(3), 2123.
- Ospina, N. S., Phillips, K. A., Rodriguez-Gutierrez, R., Castaneda-Guarderas, A., Gionfriddo, M. R., Branda, M. E., & Montori, V. M. (2019). Eliciting the patient’s agenda-secondary analysis of recorded clinical encounters. Journal of general internal medicine, 34(1), 36-40.
- Microsoft. (2020, August). Volvo Group improves employee experience with Microsoft 365, drives loyalty and attracts talent [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://customers.microsoft.com/en-us/story/807000-volvo-group-case-study-human-resources-automotive-m365