Active Listening and Extension

Active listening is an important technique, some would say a fundamental skill, that can help extension professionals ensure effective communication.

It is used to make certain they fully understand what their “client” is communicating. It is also important as a tool to help validate what their clients understanding of the matter in question is.

When “clients” realise they have been heard and understood, it gives them greater confidence in the extension person and makes them more responsive to what the extension person has to say and propose in return.

The extension professional can also convey things far more effectively, as they understand their client and their circumstances must better; due to their having questioned, listened fully and gently probed, to get that full understanding.

“Using active listening techniques not only ensure things are understood, it verifies to the speaker (the “client”) that they are being “heard”. This leads to greater trust and more effective relationships.”

Steps in active listening:

Asking – this engages the “client” and starts the conversation in the subject area

Probing – this is a way to gently gather more information to develop a shared understanding

Attending – means at all times paying attention to the “client” and focusing on their communication signals, what they are saying; but also importantly the tone of their voice, their body language, posture, facial expressions; essentially all of their verbal and non verbal modes of communication

Restating – this is validating what has been communicated, by the extension professional repeating what they have heard

Acknowledging – this is when the “client” shows that they recognise that they have been listened to and that they have been understood. “Yes, that is what I mean”. It also relates to the extension professional being confident that what they have had to covey, has been understood

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey.

Active listening techniques

Paraphrasing, summarising and reframing, are all important techniques that can be used to ensure both the extension professional and the “client” successfully get to the acknowledgement stage.

  1. Paraphrasing – is summarising in your own words what the “client” has said. It confirms both what they said and your understanding.
  2. Summarising – this is paraphrasing and adding in your understanding about the emotion that seems to have been expressed by the “client”. E.g. “If I heard you correctly you would like this to happen and you feel angry when it doesn’t”. This importantly conveys the extension professionals sensitivity and their desire to develop a true understanding of the situation at hand.
  3. Reframing – is when the extension professional, in their own words, states in neutral or unbiased terms, what they think the “client” really wants.

It is important that you empathise with the “client”, you concentrate on what they are saying and you don’t interrupt. You must try not to “mentally” argue with them in your head, or “play down the board”,  anticipating what they are going to say.

Note the facts and evidence that arise in the conversation and try to ensure the conversation is taking place where there are no distractions.

It is also important to concentrate, assess the non verbal cues and read between the lines of what is being said. The non verbal communication can be restated and validated, just as easily as the verbal. In doing so, it may help get the to crux of the matter quicker.

Active listening tips

  • Ask Open-Ended Questions — see tips to encourage sharing (below)
  • Restate — “Let me see if I’m clear about this: ____.” I heard you say, “____.” Is that accurate?
  • Summarise — “So it sounds to me as if…”
  • Minimal encouragers — Prompts such as “umm-hmm,” “Oh,” “I understand,” “Then?”
  • Reflect — Instead of just repeating, reflect the feelings of the speaker, “This seems really important to you….”
  • Emotion labelling — “Are you feeling frustrated…worried…anxious…”
  • Validate — Acknowledge the feelings, problems, and issues the speaker is facing. “I appreciate your willingness to talk about such a difficult issue.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
  • Clarify —“Am I understanding you correctly?” “Could you tell me more about the sequence of events?”
  • Silence — Allow for comfortable silences to slow down the exchange or diffuse difficult interactions.
  • Difference in rate — Be aware that you can listen faster (i.e process words, 150 to 500 words per minute), than a person can speak (100 to 150 words per minute). Use the extra time you have to focus on observing their facial expressions and body language, noticing their tone and being aware of their emotional reactions and attitude.
  • Keep the focus on the speaker — Avoid shifting the focus to yourself. Language such as “I know”, “This happened to me”, “I’ve heard this before”, “In my experience” will do that and puts up a barrier to a speaker, it will stifle their dialogue and may result in them ceasing to talk altogether. Giving opinions and interjecting with words such as “could”, “would”, “but” and “however”, will also shift the focus to yourself and stifle the speaker.
  • Keep on topic — If the conversation starts to wander off the key topic, into areas or subjects that are clearly not relevant; validate and acknowledge that is where the conversation may have got to, and if so, steer the conversation back on topic with appropriate open ended questions.
  • Give positive feedback — This will encourage the speaker to keep sharing. E.g. “I like what you’ve had to say about…..”, “What else can you tell me about…..”
  • Take notes or build a mind map — If it is an important topic that involves a detailed discussion, record what is being said, but ask first if that is ok.
  • Defer judgementTry to avoid judging the speaker or jumping to conclusions. This will close down your listening skills and tempt you to interrupt.

Tips to encourage sharing

  • → I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic
  • → It would be helpful to hear your perspective.
  • → How will (proposed solution) change the current situation?
  • → What have you been thinking about while waiting for this conversation to take place?
  • → What do you think would happen if you…?
  • → What do you want to see happening differently?
  • → If you could change anything, what would it be?
  • → Tell me more about….
  • → You said, “____.” Can you say more or explain?
  • → When you use the word “____,” what do you mean?
  • → What matters to you most?
  • → Can you say more about your concern with “____”?
  • → What is it that concerns you about this?
  • → What leads you to say that?
  • → What information might you need that would help you understand my concerns?

Active listening takes focus and is a learned skill. Taking the time to perfect the techniques will lead to much better understanding, improved relationships and more effective information exchange.

Content sources and further information

Bulletin #4806, Active Listening to Improve On-Farm Communication. The University of Maine.

Stephen R. Covey, 2004. Free Press.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change