Active listening and actually listening are not the same thing.

The purpose of active listening is to in some way help the person who you are listening to.  You can use it to get someone to open up, help them solve a problem or to help them gain insights into their own thinking and behaviours.

Active listening involves either restating the person’s own words (recommended) or paraphrasing in order to confirm your understanding or confirm what you have heard, asking questions using the person’s own words and phrases and listening without interrupting.

One of the key elements of active listening is ‘getting yourself out of the way’. In other words, putting aside your own experiences, thoughts or feelings and focussing solely on the experience and needs of the person you are listening to. It is possible to create a picture of what is being described, hear the associated sounds and even experience the feelings of the person you are listening to without relating it back to any of your own ‘stuff’.

Good quality active listening involves being in rapport and being seen to be listening for example using eye contact, nodding, smiling and matching or mirroring body language.

Actually listening on the other hand, means listening without interrupting, hearing what the other person has to say and not just acknowledging their concerns or criticisms, but treating the information as invaluable feedback.  It allows you to consider what part you play in the problem or challenge being presented (even if your part is to let the person solve it themselves).

Actually listening is an opportunity to try and find out what the other person’s need are and follow up with meaningful actions if appropriate. This doesn't mean taking responsibilities for someone else’s problems.

Actually listening involves asking questions so that you can deepen your own understanding of the ‘feedback’ that you are being given.  It means being prepared to reflect honestly upon your own thinking or behaviours or to heighten your awareness of something that you had previously not been paying attention to.

Active listening and actually listening are two very different things.

If you are using active listening when you should be actually listening, you could be absolving yourself of your personal responsibilities, unknowingly sabotaging your relationships (whether personal or professional) or dismissing something which requires further attention and action on your part.

If you are actually listening when active listening would be more appropriate you are in danger of taking the weight of the world on your shoulders to your own and other people’s detriment. You could be taking on guilt and unnecessary worry, using your own precious resources to solve problems which rightly belong to other people or preventing people coming to you in the future for help in overcoming challenges, for fear that they will burden you with their issues or have the issues taken off their hands.

Are you in the habit of consciously choosing which type of listening is right for any given situation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments box.

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