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Collaborative problem solving for community safety
Collaborative problem solving for community safety

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2 Active listening skills

2.1 Key elements of active listening

Whether we are talking to a family member, friend, colleague or client - or anyone else for that matter - we are constantly listening. Yet there is a difference between listening and active listening.

Active listening is a critical skill for everyone, but even more so for professionals working in roles such as community policing and when dealing with vulnerable people. The College of Policing, for example, defines active listening skills as:

paying careful attention to the intent and content of an individual’s communications through use of a range of techniques (such as mirroring, paraphrasing, emotion labelling and use of open-ended questions) to demonstrate an understanding of their needs.

College of Policing Mental Vulnerability and Illness, 2013

In Active listening: improve your ability to listen and lead (2006, p.12), Michael Hoppe points out that active listening relates not just to a person’s willingness (and ability) to hear but importantly also their willingness and ability to understand. In order to describe this Hoppe lists six key skills of active listening:

  • Paying attention to your language and body language, as well as that of the other person.
  • Holding your judgement so that you can be open to the ideas and perspectives offered by the other person, even if they do not necessarily accord with your own.
  • Reflecting and paraphrasing the other person’s information and feelings as a way of confirming and indicating genuine understanding.
  • Using clarifying and probing questions to ensure that no key points remain unclear.
  • Summarising to ensure mutual understanding and buy-in.
  • Sharing your thoughts and addressing any concerns.

Most people would agree that each of these skills is highly important, but in reality they are all necessary. Being strong in just one skill will not enable you to be a good active listener, instead you should seek to improve your capability in each of these key areas.

Activity 4 Active listening

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes for this activity.

Understanding your own level of active listening can be a really important step. Complete the following checklist to evaluate how good you are at listening:

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For any of the questions where you marked yourself ‘agree’, you may find the following suggestions helpful.

  1. I sometimes indicate through my body language, tone or behaviour that I am not fully attentive:
    • Actively monitor and manage your body language to ensure that you are not inadvertently sending a message that you are not attentive.
    • Wherever possible try to find a time and location where disruptions will be minimised.
    • Try to complete one task or conversation before beginning another.
  2. I can at times struggle to concentrate on the conversation:
    • Actively engage with the other person: turn towards them and be sure to maintain eye contact.
    • Take notes to help you remember important points.
  3. I get annoyed if I feel that I am being slowed down:
    • Be proactive. Let them know you want to hear their concerns, suggestions, and needs.
    • Consider the potential costs of not slowing down and listening to the other person.
    • If due to time pressures you are unable to finish a conversation, be sure to agree another time when you can complete it.
  4. I tend to concentrate more on what to say next rather on what is being said right now by the person I am speaking with:
    • Remind yourself that your primary goal is to listen and understand.
    • Set a goal of being able to repeat the last sentence the other person has said.
    • Give yourself a moment to formulate your response after the other person finishes speaking rather than just jumping in.
  5. Instead of waiting for the other person to finish talking, I sometimes interrupt or may show signs of impatience:
    • Focus on what is being said, not what you want to say.
    • Give yourself a moment to formulate your response after the other person finishes speaking rather than just jumping in.
  6. I have a tendency to give advice too soon and may propose actions or solutions even before the person I am speaking with has finished outlining their thoughts:
    • Consider that the other person may primarily need to be heard and understood.
    • Ask open-ended questions that encourage the other person to offer ideas.
    • Don’t be afraid of silence. It gives the other person a chance to continue, and it gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.
  7. I am uncomfortable with silence in conversations and will often make a point of filling any gaps:
    • Don’t be afraid of silence. It gives the other person a chance to continue, and it gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.
    • Silence can also give you the opportunity to observe the other person’s body language and to consider the context in which the conversation is taking place.
  8. I become very uncomfortable if the person I am speaking with starts expressing emotions:
    • Discuss the emotions as you notice them: “You seem worried about … . Tell me more about it”.
    • Pay attention to the tone of voice, body language, and the use of specific words – this can tell you a huge amount of what might really be going on.
  9. I normally expect yes or no answers and can get frustrated when this is not the case:
    • Remind yourself that such an expectation is not appropriate for active listening.
    • Avoid dead-end questions that ask for confirmation instead of insight: “Don’t you think that…?”
  10. I often keep my thoughts to myself, even when it would be helpful to share them:
    • Being an active listener includes sharing your thoughts. Just remember that your primary objective is to understand; being understood is secondary.
    • Build on what the other person says: “That triggered the following thought for me”.