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IC Communication Competency 4: Active Listening

In order to minimise the risk of miscommunication and misunderstandings, it is vital for people to engage in ‘active listening’. Active listening denotes the willingness and ability to listen actively to what the interactional partner is saying, to check whether a message has been understood correctly, to check whether one understands the other’s messages correctly, and to clarify meaning where required.
 
 a. Building a common understanding of terms
 
In order to be able to communicate in a meaningful way, it is necessary for both project partners to have a good understanding of each other’s contexts and the meaning of terminology in other cultures. In education projects, for example, it can by no means be assumed that terminology such as ‘course’ or ‘module’ refer to the same academic structures or denote the same things. It is, therefore, essential to spend time clarifying the meaning of terms, which might be used widely in both countries but to very different effects.
 
Case Study Example: Exploring Definitions
 
All of the eChina-UK project members found that it was it vital to spend considerable time reaching a common understanding of terms and concepts. This was not necessarily a language proficiency issue; it was equally important among native speakers. At first, teams needed to clarify use of terms like course, module, unit, chapter, and even something like this could be emotionally challenging:
British 09:
When I first joined, I spent weeks if not months on a simple practical confusion as to what is a unit, module, what was the other one? 
British 06:
Activity.
British 09:
 
There was no standard definition, so I was like blocked at the first hurdle, and so I wasn’t quite sure how much material I’d got to write, because we were given this notion of how many hours the student would spend, I wouldn’t know in which box those hours fitted. ... I thought I don’t understand this, I can’t do this.
The process was never-ending: finding out the nuances of meaning associated with each person’s use of a word, and then developing joint working definitions. There was a continual stream of words and concepts to discuss; for example, blended learning, online learning, formative assessment, summative assessment, forum, e-portfolio, student workspace, evaluation, reflection, criticality, and so on. There was no alternative but to spend considerable lengths of time talking with each other, and gradually building up a common understanding and common language.
 
The Chinese partners often assumed that their British partners were clear about their use of English terms, when in fact very often they were not, as the quotation above illustrates.
 
 
 b. Checking understanding/Asking for clarification
 
The amount of effort constantly required to ensure shared understanding can be hard work, frustrating and/or embarrassing, so it often seems easier to ignore potential misunderstandings. However, such a laisser-faire attitude can lead to latent (i.e. delayed) misunderstandings, which can take weeks, months or even years to resolve. Latent and unresolved misunderstandings can leave both parties feeling dissatisfied with the collaboration and, in the long term, they can have a serious impact on relationships and on the success of a partnership. So detecting misunderstandings at an early stage can prevent more severe problems and misunderstandings arising at a later stage of the project.
 
Case Study Example: Clarifying Meaning
 
An important element of active listening is asking for clarification and/or checking understanding. The following examples from eChina-UK project meetings illustrate this process:
Example 1: 
 
Chinese 20:
[Summing up what he has just said] So these are the 4 things that the Ministry would like to have.
British 17:
So these are platform, educational management, IPR and admin.
Chorus:
Yes.
 Example 2:  
Chinese 21:
So I direct a group team for making the standards for the courses on the internet. And the second
British 18:
Sorry, do you mean standards for interoperability or standards of quality?
Chinese 21:
For quality.
Both these examples show how the speakers UK1 and UK2 took steps to clarify the other person’s meaning, thereby helping to ensure that they shared the same understanding as their communicative partners.
 
 

cift_arrow.gif Tip: In your next meeting with non-native speaking partners or colleagues, monitor how much you understand of what is said. Reflect on ways in which you could try to listen more actively without causing offence.