Saturday, December 11, 2010

Active listening involves getting in sync with the other person

Listening involves far more than sitting there! The are three key elements to active listening: clarifying, pacing and backtracking. They help you get in sync with the other person and more easily empathize. Concentrating on them also helps us stay out of the “yeah, but” mode AND keeps us from overreacting to the other person.


To clarify is to ask open-ended questions─who, when, where, what, how─to gain a better understanding of the other person’s position and move them toward a solution. Open-ended questions can't be answered with yes or no, so you gain more useful information. It's a good idea to avoid “why” questions—they’re perceived as accusatory and can put the other person on the defensive.


Pacing involves subtly mirroring the communication style of the other person─their posture, facial expressions, gestures and the pace, volume and energy of their voice. You must be very careful not to mimic or ape them! We naturally pace people we’re comfortable with and we do the opposite with people we’re uncomfortable with.

Think back to your junior high lunchroom. Sorry, I know this is can be painful! Picture yourself and your buddies sitting at your usual table. When someone leans in and starts to talk in a low voice, what does everyone else do? Yes, they all lean in and start whispering. Looks like a huddle. Now, if the kid who loves to spread gossip walks by, what does everyone in the huddle do? Yup, they all rear back and start talking in a loud voice about something innocuous. Just watch—you’ll see pacing in action every day!

A vey useful application of pacing is to mirror the other person’s sense of urgency. Sometimes we stay too calm and they don’t get the sense that we heard them. For instance, if they’re speaking really quickly we have a tendency to slow down to get them to slow down. Unfortunately, it just ticks them off! Instead, build in a benefit to them for doing whatever you need them to do starting at their pace and slowing down.

Here’s an example: You would start at their rapid pace and say, “I want to make sure we get your loan processed as quickly as possible.” Then you would gradually slow down as you say, “ May I ask you to verify your current address so I may pull up your records and get the process going?”


Backtracking is similar to paraphrasing only you concentrate on using some of their actual words. We call these their essence words. You’ll know what they are—they emphasize them. They can also indicate any hot spots for them.

The risk of using paraphrasing is that we often change what they said into our own words. I’m sure you’ve heard someone come back with, “No, that’s NOT what I said!” Now you have a really angry person on your hands!

Backtracking is an essential technique if you’re dealing with an especially aggressive person. They put great credence in their words. In order for them to feel heard, you need to use some of their essence words when you ask a question or summarize what they’ve said.

Often, these three techniques occur simultaneously—you pace and backtrack while you’re asking clarifying questions. Focusing on getting in sync with the other person helps us concentrate on what they're saying─helps us really hear what they're saying. Stephen Covey said it well, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."