Active listening is a fundamental skill applied in so many aspects of nonviolent community safety, which, when sensitively used, is one of the most powerful and useful tools we have for development practice.
Active listening is a tool and only a tool: Just as the ability to use a hammer does not make a carpenter neither does the ability to actively listen make a counsellor. The skill of the trade comes with the appropriate application of the tool.
Active listening is more than hearing: It involves processing what has been heard and skilfully selecting a response.
At its most basic, active listening serves to encourage the person to share more about themselves and their community and most importantly, communicates to that person that you are interested and listening.
Self-awareness will alert you to your own attitudes and biases, so that you resist imposing these on other people. Your own attitudes can intrude on the listening process and it is important that this does not happen. Practicing active listening can help you to build your own skills.
Attitudes that contribute to active listening
You need to be aware of your own beliefs, needs, biases and limitations.
Basic to the quality of your communication are the beliefs and attitudes you bring, attitudes you hold in relation to others, and to yourself.
You want to listen and are interested in the experiences, strengths and skills and point of view of the person.
People quickly sense when your response is not genuine. ‘Phoney sincerity’ does not work: your tone of voice will convey your sincerity. If you are patient and not anxious to put in your ‘two cents’ worth and show that you remember what the person is saying (“So you’ve been noticing the flooding happening regularly for seven years now”), your interest can be demonstrated and conveyed.
You respect the person’s individuality and right of self-determination.
This means that every person has a right to make his/her/their own decisions and choices about themselves and how they work within their community even if you disagree or disapprove. It is inappropriate for us to try to convince others that we are right and they are wrong. Preaching and patronising attitudes are not the domain of community development practitioners.
You avoid labelling and dismissing the person or their feelings.
“It’s not really such a big problem”, is not helpful to the person with a problem. Minimising others feelings “It’ll be alright, don’t worry, don’t feel so bad”, is usually an expression of your own discomfort with those feelings, rather than a helpful response for them.
“I understand how you feel”, is one of the most aggravating phrases and invites the aggressive retort “You DON’T KNOW how I feel!”