Enjoy the Silence – Active Listening for Qualitative Interviewing

Listen.jpgWe listen all the time or perhaps it may be more accurate to say we hear all the time.  We hear or listen to obtain information, to understand ideas, to learn and in our everyday interactions with those around us.  We take it for granted. But we can think we are listening – often in reality we are only hearing what we want to hear.

One of the lectures I give is on the role of listening and dialogue in the educational encounter. When researching for the class the more I read on active listening, the more I thought that these skills were extremely useful for qualitative interviews – and so it has proved (so far). As such, I thought it may be useful to share some of these ideas in a blog post.

Active listening is a term developed by the person-centred therapist and psychologist Carl Rogers, who said, ‘… active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy.’ As active participants in a qualitative interview we have to overcome the inattentive and complacent hearing that we may practice in our everyday lives and learn to be active listeners.

Kathryn Robertson defines active listening:

‘It means giving one’s total and undivided attention to the other person and tells the other that we are interested and concerned. Listening is difficult work that we will not undertake unless we have deep respect and care for the other…we listen not only with our ears, but with our eyes, mind, heart and imagination…we listen to the words of the other, but we also listen to the messages buried in the words. We listen to the voice, the appearance, and the body language of the other…we simply try to absorb everything the speaker is saying verbally and nonverbally without adding, subtracting, or amending.’

Active Listening 2Sounds easy, right? The point here is that active listening moves beyond what we hear, paying attention to the other aspects of what the speaker is presenting and trying to listen non-judgementally – simply trying to understand what it is the speaker is communicating.

So here I have put together a list from various reading of the do’s and don’ts of active listening. I do think that these are excellent tools for any qualitative researcher. As Robertson stated, active listening is not easy – but it can be learned with practice and attention.

1)  Be in the moment – Try and get into the mindset of a listener and remember you are there to learn. Your primary goal is to connect to and understand the interviewee. You are not there to interrogate them! So be present – set up the room without distractions, turn off phones.

2)  Pay attention to emotion – This can be particularly potent and means paying attention to more than the words being used as it can be contained in the tone of voice, body language, eye contact etc. This can be a way of showing deep respect for the point of view of the other but has to be handled carefully. Remember, we are not counselors (or aren’t there in that role, certainly) so this is a path that has to be trodden with care. But it can be a potent way of garnering excellent material.

3)  ‘Listen’ to body language – closed gestures, fidgeting, not making eye contact with you – all these things and more can send more information than the words. And paying attention to your own body language – making eye contact, leaning in, being open – all send important signals that you are interested and listening.

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4)  Make eye contact – this goes without saying, really – seeming distracted and elsewhere does not make for good listening or showing respect.

5)  Suspend judgement – even if you have strong views on any matters under discussion, you suspend judgment and avoid arguing or giving your own point of view on the issues at hand. This is of course crucial for interviewing – we’re not there to hear our own voice but the interviewee’s. Any challenge to potentially sensitive topics can wait until afterwards.

6)  Verbal and non-verbal affirmations – Simple things, such as nodding or ‘ah’ or ‘mmm’ – all cues which show you are paying attention, in the moment and making sense of the information being conveyed.

7)  Slow down – Slow your pace. Don’t speed the conversation along. Rushing people will inevitably lead them to clam up and shut down

Pause8)  Pauses – silence can be the most significant weapon in your arsenal. It has proven to be the case in my own interviews. When people stop talking briefly we can feel the need to fill these gaps but often it gives people time to think further and develop ideas, arguments or simply allows them thinking time to continue. It also shows that you are giving power to them to develop the direction that conversation or dialogue is taking.

9)  Mirroring – reflect information. Use paraphrasing—a brief summary of the other person’s key points will help confirm understanding as well as telling them you are listening and understand. The ability to reflect can help create rapport and deepen exploration. Reflecting emotion in particular is a potent way of showing respect and developing dialogue.

10) Open questions – Michael Hoppe tells us that ‘open-ended, clarifying, and probing questions are important tools. Open-ended questions draw people out and encourage them to expand their ideas. They allow you to uncover hidden issues. They also encourage people to reflect rather than justifying or defending a position or trying to guess the “right” answer. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Examples of open-ended questions include “What are your thoughts on . . . ?” “What led you to draw this conclusion?” “What happened next?”

11) Summarizing  – helps people see key themes and can help you clarify what it is the other person is telling you. It can also help wrap up certain points in the conversation if Shut Upyou think you have exhausted a particular route and want to move the discussion on. It also shows that you have been listening and understood.

12) Shut up!! – Well, I think we could all do more of this from time to time…

It’s important to state here I think that being an active listener isn’t about being completely passive. As a qualitative researcher you are an active party to the interview with your own thoughts and feelings – as Holstein and Gubrium discuss, you cannot but help to shape the information that you are collecting. But active listening is first and foremost about understanding the interviewee. And as researchers, isn’t that what we are there for – to understand the position, experience and viewpoint of the other person?

As someone very much learning their craft, I’m keen to hear other people’s thoughts and feelings on the above and to learn any tips or strategies for research interviewing. I have really found the above very useful for reflecting on my own interviews, particularly when listening back and transcribing. It can be quite uncomfortable picking up on my own mistakes! I think the most useful lesson I have learnt is about being silent (Point 8 above). I have found it uncomfortable at points sitting quietly and waiting (not too long, mind!) but it has proven very profitable.

I’ll leave the last word to Carl Rogers himself, who puts it better than I ever could:

Carl Rogers‘The first reaction of most people when they consider listening as a possible method for dealing with human beings is that listening cannot be sufficient in itself, Because it is passive, they feel, listening does not communicate anything to the speaker. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. By consistently listening to a speaker, you are conveying the idea that: “I’m interested in you as a person, and I think that what you feel is important. I respect your thoughts, and even if I don’t agree with them, I know that they are valid for you. I feel sure that you have a contribution to make. I’m not trying to change you or evaluate you. I just want to understand you. I think you’re worth listening to, and I want you to know that I’m the kind of a person you can talk to”’

Please feel free to post comments – the more the better. Thanks.

For further reading on the above, some of which have informed the above and other connected articles that may be of interest, see:

Annunziata, M.A. and Muzzatti, B. (2014). ‘Cancer as an interruption in the plot: the contribution of the psychology in patients’ reframing their own narratives’, Journal of Medicine and the Person, Vol. 12, (2), pp51-54

Bodie, G.D., St. Cyr, K., Pence, M., Rold, M. and Honeycutt, J. (2012). ‘Listening Competence in Initial InteractionsI: Distinguishing Between What Listening Is and What Listeners Do’, International Journal of Listening, Vol. 26, (1), pp1-28

Carollo, S. (2011). ‘Beyond Dialogue: The Nexus of Active Listening and Servant-Leadership: A Pivotal Point for Pedagogy’, AUDEM, Vol. 2, (1), pp80-93

Holstein, J.A. & Gubrium, J.F. (2011) ‘Animating Interview Narratives’, In D. Silverman (ed.) Qualitative Research (3rd edition) London: Sage Publications, pp149-167

Hoppe, M. H. (2007). ‘Lending an Ear Why Leaders Must Learn to Listen Actively’, Leadership in Action, Vol. 27, (4), pp11-14

Robertson, K. (2005). ‘Active Listening’,  Australian Family Physician, Vol. 34, (12), pp1053-1055

Rogers, C. and Farson, R.E. (1957). Active Listening, Chicago: University of Chicago

Rogers, C. (1980). A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin

Royce, T. (2005). ‘The Negotiator and the Bomber: Analyzing the Critical Role of Active Listening in Crisis Negotiations’, Negotiation Journal, Vol. 21, (1), pp5-27

Smith, M. K. (2001). ‘Dialogue and conversation’, The encyclopaedia of informal education. <http://infed.org/mobi/dialogue-and-conversation/> (Date last accessed – 01/02/16)

Categories: PhD Studies

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2 replies

  1. Excellent stuff. From my own training in Education management many years ago I discovered I was far too solution focussed… a common fault.
    Samaritan Training sessions are also really good for addressing this although I did this many many years ago.
    Maybe our Mps, MSPs, Councillors and Party leaders could m
    benefit from some of this ???

    Liked by 1 person

    • Same, Anne. As a youth worker and support worker I was always focused on solutions. It was an important lesson from my manager at the time that sometimes people don’t want solutions, they just want understanding. It’s amazing how this is the case in so much of life – loved ones, friends and pretty much everyone around us. At the end of the day if people want support and advice they usually ask for it. And yes, I think most people in most professions could benefit from much of this!


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