A few months ago I was teaching a half-day workshop to about 40 Extension and agribusiness professionals. At the session’s conclusion, many indicated that their greatest insight came from the section on active listening.

So let’s review that topic.

Begin by thinking of a time when someone — employee, colleague, partner, family member, friend — was not listening when you had something important to say.  Now think about how you felt and describe your feelings in one word. Some common feelings cited include: frustrated, ignored, angry, unimportant, upset.

To do our part to avoid such responses, we need to become better active or empathetic listeners.

People tend to view listening as a passive activity, but active listening is a proactive way to enhance communication. As such, the listener takes “active” responsibility for understanding both the content of and feelings behind what’s being said. An underlying theme is for the listener to use active listening to help others solve their own problems.

Let’s look at an example.  An employee approaches you and says: “The deadline to finish sanitizing the farrowing facility is not realistic.”  The typical response would be to insist that the deadline is realistic. An active listening response, however, could be: “It sounds like you are concerned about whether you can meet the deadline.” 

The advantage of this response is twofold. First, you show that you understand the employee’s position. Second, the two of you can now talk about both the employee’s feelings and the practical issue of meeting the deadline.  Active listening opens the door for effective communication, reducing the likelihood of a confrontation.

Here’s a contrast between typical listening and the active listening approach:

• Typical listening involves listening to the other person in order to respond to what he/she is saying.

• Active listening means listening carefully to truly understand what the other person is saying and how he or she feels about the message.

Employers like to claim that they have open communication, yet they fail at active listening. Active listening is a skill that communicates acceptance and increases interpersonal trust between employees and their supervisor. It heightens the chance of an employee leaving a conversation perceiving he or she has been treated fairly.

Think about all of your daily communications. What percentage of  time would you categorize your listening as:

___ 1. Paying little or no attention.

___ 2. Listening, but also thinking about other things.

___ 3. Listening, but thinking about your response.

___ 4. Listening with nothing else in your mind; only after the person is finished speaking do you begin thinking about how to respond.

We normally think of Level 3 as “good listening.” The problem is that like Level 2, we are multi-tasking, which distracts us from fully — actively — listening. 

It’s unrealistic to think you will achieve Level 4 100 percent of the time. Rather, establish a realistic goal for the percentage of time you will choose to listen with nothing else on your mind, and work to meet that goal.

Many of us do not fully listen to what’s being said nor do we ask follow-up questions to elicit greater understanding or more information. Usually, when someone initiates a conversation, the person has spent time thinking about the idea, concern or situation. Interjecting an off-the-cuff response before the person completely explains his or her thinking not only diminishes the time the person spent on the topic but also the quality of your relationship with that individual. 

Here are two listening practices to help you become a better listener:

1. Pause one to two seconds before replying. This practice shows you are listening carefully; you avoid or reduce the risk of interrupting; and you actually hear the other person more clearly.

2. Ask questions to clarify. Two good ones are: “What do you mean?” and “Can you tell me more?”

The “tell me more” phrase is very effective, especially when the speaker has difficulty expressing his or her thoughts or isn’t certain whether you’re interested.

The consequences of failing to let others fully express themselves are often two-fold. First, the conversation is not brought to a successful conclusion. Second, you have sent the message that you do not want to listen, and consequently, future ideas, concerns and feelings may never be communicated. 

So set a goal to become an active listener.

Bob Milligan is a consultant and  professor emeritus from Cornell University.   He can be reached at  (651) 647-0495 or  rmilligan@trsmith.com .