A communication technique for those working with volunteers is the ability to drop the normal listening pattern and use the active listening communication tool. The time to use it can vary; an interview with a prospective volunteer for a challenging position; a conversation with a volunteer who is being asked to consider a position with a good deal of responsibility; a volunteer who is not working up to par and no one knows why; a conflict between two or more volunteers; or a volunteer who is dealing with something emotionally challenging. Those reasons and more are enough to send the director of volunteers to the active listening tool.
Active listening is commonly defined as a way to listen, without preparing a response while the person is still talking. The listener then summarizes what he/she heard and paraphrases it to check out understanding. It can be cumbersome, but is a much needed ally in the war for good communication.
Here are some tips to help do it well.
No pen clicking, texting, computer gazing, or tapping fingers. Quiet your body to concentrate fully on the speaker. Maximum concentration is essential for active listening to work.
Quiet your mind
Perhaps the most difficult part of active listening is to restrain the impulse to think of a response while the person is speaking. In North America our predominant listening pattern is to listen part way to what someone is saying, proceed to thinking up a response (person is still talking) and then interrupt the speaker with our response. This means you are not actively listening. Quiet the mind and concentrate fully on the speaker. Words and actions.
Make no impatient gestures
Avoid looking at a clock or your watch. Resist sending any message that there are better things to do than listen to this person.
Active listening requires no "buts." There may be some but that is not how to start. The first task of the active listener is to listen with enough concentration to be able to paraphrase accurately what someone has said. Then the listener makes sure that what is being said squares with the message the person is trying to send. To interrupt with a “but” means the abandonment of active listening as a tool. First is understanding, then discussion. This is true even if the speaker is wrong about something. Discussion comes AFTER the person is completely done speaking.
Paraphrase what the person has said
Repeating what someone says can seem awkward. Try lead-ins like—“I want to be sure I am clear about . . . .” “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying. . ..” “I am not sure that I got everything you were saying. “Let me check with you. . .” Will you indulge me and my poor memory by letting me see if I can summarize what you are saying.”
Paraphrasing requires you use your words, not the speakers. The purpose of this communication tool is to make sure both of you have the same view of the same topic.
Under no circumstances does the active listener interrupt the speaker. The person speaking needs to send complete information as he/she sees it. And never let someone interrupt with a message or phone call. If you are going to the trouble to use active listening, make the location private and tell everyone---no interruptions. That includes the background “ping” of an email arriving.
Make no shopping lists
Some people do other work while talking with people on work related things. This works most of the time, but if active listening is used there is no grant writing, balancing a checkbook, or writing out a grocery list while the active listening is in progress.
No stifled criticism
When using active listening it can be tempting to stop someone and criticize his/her perception of what happened. We know that is a no-no! What also happens is the rolled eyes, or snorts and sneers that send a message of criticism to the speaker. It is human to feel it, but never let your face or body show it. The job is to hear and understand the information sent, without judgment, to understand from the speakers view. After understanding by the listener is assured there is time for comment or more questions.
In the May issue of Volunteer Today there will be a quiz on the different types of responses people give when listening and which ones represent good active listening responses. Stay tuned!