Listening – the key to meaningful communication

The ability to communicate effectively is a respected skill and listening is the key to communication.

In 1992 the National Joint Committee for the Communicative Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities defined communication as “any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge or affective states. Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or nonlinguistic forms, and may occur through spoken or other modes.”

Among all people, disabled or not, active listening is a communication tool that will help to better understand another person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge or affective states. Active listening is a fundamental skill. Even if one believes they are truly engaged in listening, the listener may not convey that in a meaningful manner for the speaker. When listening, the active listener will take responsibility to verify that the speaker does feel “heard.”  

The Active Listening Continuum, a tool used in the Michigan State University ExtensionSoothing Conflict Smoothies” workshops, is aimed at advancing decisive conversations and providing better understanding between participants. The continuum begins with asking:

  • Asking is often when a conversation starts, when someone is invited to say something through voice or another communication mode
  • Probing or guessing is a way to gently gather more information to help one understand
  • Attending means paying attention, noticing the conventional or unconventional signals, linguistic or nonlinguistic expressions, and spoken or other communication modes
  • Restating is simply repeating what one thinks was said

The final three approaches from the Active Listening Continuum more assertively validate a person’s feelings; the person begins to realize and acknowledge that he or she is being understood. To further exemplify these approaches using the continuum, the following conversation may have begun when a person complained about a co-worker. By asking, probing and attending, the following paraphrasing, summarizing and reframing responses could have been employed by the active listener:

Paraphrasing is using one’s own words to restate what the speaker said.

  • Paraphrasing: You think your co-worker is not trustworthy because he or she does not follow through on completing tasks.”

Summarizing is paraphrasing and adding the emotion that seemed to be expressed by the speaker.

  • Summarizing: “You feel frustrated because your co-worker does not follow through on completing tasks.”

Reframing is to state, in neutral or unbiased terms, what one thinks the speaker really wants.

  • Reframing: “You would like your co-worker to follow-through and complete tasks.”

Clarifying the speakers meaning with additional active listening questions may be necessary to finally have the speaker say, “Yes – that is what I mean!” Once this happens, a deeper understanding between two people has occurred, communication has been remarkably enhance  and the conversation is ready to move forward toward solutions or ideas for resolution.

For additional articles related to facilitative processes, conflict management, leadership development and civic participation practices, visit the civic engagement page on the Michigan State University Extension website.

MSU Extension offers a variety of educational programs in conflict management skills, facilitative practices, leadership development and civic participation practices.

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