It has come to my attention lately that, to be Frank, folks these days SUCK at “listening”. They also seem to suck at skills that, in my opinion, go along WITH listening, like sympathy, empathy, advocacy and support (of the moral kind). How many times have you had and argument or disagreement with a loved one and said to that person (or later said to your BFF) “He just isn’t listening to me”, or, “She just doesn’t seem to HEAR what I’m saying”. Another one of my favorites that indicates a gap in communication is “You don’t understand”. I would venture to guess that many people think listening and hearing are the same thing, while I would argue that they DEFINITELY are not.
But, let me not get ahead of myself. We were talking about “listening” skills, or lack thereof. Listening and Hearing are skills that must be developed, much like a pro basketball player’s jump shot. Sure, there is that rare individual who is born with natural ability, but even Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie practice their craft. It is my guess that they do not sit at home and simply assume that they will win their next PGA tournament. I would argur that motivational speakers practice their art as well. Sure, there are likely a few individuals who “wing it”, but most, I’m sure, have written a basic speech or note card type itinerary that they follow, and then make modifications as they go based off the reactions of the particular audience to whom they are speaking. But along that note, I would suggest that just because someone is good at talking (or “presenting) does NOT necessarily mean they are good at listening.
How does this tie into Listening, you may ask? Practice. When was the last time you practiced your listening skills? I know, you probably think you’re an AWESOME listener, amirite? You never fight, argue or have disagreements with people close to you, right? You get along GREAT with your boss, coworkers and siblings, right? Whether the answer is yes OR no, it is my firm belief that there are things that ALL of us can to do improve our listening, hearing, and empathy skills, something I like to call the “interpersonal trio”, or “I3” (I made that up just now. pretty impressed with myself at the moment ;))
Perhaps it is my innate dislike for disagreements in general that prompted me to pursue a degree in Psychology. Perhaps I simply have an innate talent for it. Maybe I just got lucky? Either way, I feel that I’m a pretty decent communicator and a superb listener. For the record, I genuinely give a sh*t about my family and friends, and I always WANT to listen to what they have to say. I want to “hear” them, and I WANT to UNDERSTAND what it is they are thinking and feeling when they talk to me. I feel that as a “listener”, in whatever capacity or role that may be (peer, friend, lover, etc), it is my JOB to hear them, to UNDERSTAND them, BEFORE I can offer them my empathy, sympathy, moral support or advocacy. Trust is an important factor here as well. People tend to be disinclined to TRULY communicate their feelings to someone if they feel that the listener will soon telephone, telegraph or tellafriend their innermost thoughts and feelings. For that reason, I have learned to KMFMS (keep my freaking mouth shut) when it comes to such things. I strive to be a vault. Too bad the vault contains more secrets than cash :p.
But, back to listening. So, what can we ALL do to improve our I3, or listening, skills? Here are a few tips from an article written by Susie Michelle Cortwright entitled 10 Tips to Effective and Active Listening Skills.
Listening makes our loved ones feel worthy, appreciated, interesting, and respected. Ordinary conversations emerge on a deeper level, as do our relationships. When we listen, we foster the skill in others by acting as a model for positive and effective communication.
In our love relationships, greater communication brings greater intimacy. Parents listening to their kids helps build their self-esteem. In the business world, listening saves time and money by preventing misunderstandings. And we always learn more when we listen than when we talk.
Listening skills fuel our social, emotional and professional success, and studies prove that listening is a skill we can learn.
The Technique. Active listening is really an extension of the Golden Rule. To know how to listen to someone else, think about how you would want to be listened to.
While the ideas are largely intuitive, it might take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skills. Here’s what good listeners know — and you should, too:
1. Face the speaker. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.
2. Maintain eye contact, to the degree that you all remain comfortable.
3. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your book or magazine, and ask the speaker and other listeners to do the same.
4. Respond appropriately to show that you understand. Murmur (“uh-huh” and “um-hmm”) and nod. Raise your eyebrows. Say words such as “Really,” “Interesting,” as well as more direct prompts: “What did you do then?” and “What did she say?”
5. Focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. The conversation will follow a logical flow after the speaker makes her point.
6. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep horning in, simply let them go and continuously re-focus your attention on the speaker, much as you would during meditation.
7. Keep an open mind. Wait until the speaker is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what the speaker is thinking.
Have you tried and tried but your best is still not good enough? Don’t know what to do next? Talk to a mentor.
8. Avoid letting the speaker know how you handled a similar situation. Unless they specifically ask for advice, assume they just need to talk it out.
9. Even if the speaker is launching a complaint against you, wait until they finish to defend yourself. The speaker will feel as though their point had been made. They won’t feel the need to repeat it, and you’ll know the whole argument before you respond. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in…and be ready for more.
10. Engage yourself. Ask questions for clarification, but, once again, wait until the speaker has finished. That way, you won’t interrupt their train of thought. After you ask questions, paraphrase their point to make sure you didn’t misunderstand. Start with: “So you’re saying…”
As you work on developing your listening skills, you may feel a bit panicky when there is a natural pause in the conversation. What should you say next? Learn to settle into the silence and use it to better understand all points of view.
Ironically, as your listening skills improve, so will your aptitude for conversation. A friend of my partner once complimented me on my conversational skills. I hadn’t said more than four words, but I had listened to him for 25 minutes.
Excellent tips Susie, thank you! Another skill I find very useful is called “reflective listening“.
To quote the definition offered on Wikipedia:
Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps: seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. It attempts to “reconstruct what the client is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to the client”. Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than the more general methods of active listening. It arose from Carl Rogers’ school of client-centered therapy in counselling theory.
Basically, the listener attempts to “reflect” back to the speaker, the “essence” of what it is the speaker is trying to communicate to the listener. This communication strategy, in my opinion, is EXTREMELY useful for persons who are quite “different” from one another. Perhaps they have vastly different communication styles (a “direct” communicator vs a more “passive” one), different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. I think it could also be an extremely useful communication technique for parents who have teens. Goodness knows the difficulties of communicating with a teen, what with their weird music, ridiculous jargon and horrible fashion sense ;).
I think a good example is exhibited in the article “Active Listening“. Note here that the listener is focusing on the SPEAKER, rather than the actual situation:
Responding to what is personal means responding to things the other person says about him- or herself rather than about other people, events, or situations. If a co-worker said, “I’m worried that I’ll lose my job” the reflective listener would try to focus on the worried “I” rather than on the job situation. A response such as “It’s scary” would be better than “Maybe the cutbacks won’t affect you.” When the listener responds to personal statements rather than impersonal ones, the other usually stays at the personal level, exploring further aspects of his or her experience, improving his or her understanding of the situation, and developing a more realistic, active approach to solving problems.
I took what I feel is another good example from the article “People Communicating, Imagine the Possibilities”
Tom: I wonder why Laura got a bigger raise than me. She’s been with the company a lot less time than me, and she hasn’t done anything significant to merit a raise.
Listener: You think Laura should have gotten a smaller raise.
Notice how the person listening did not question the validity of Tom’s feelings, the listener just reflected in his own words what he heard.
Tom’s possible reactions are: (a) He feels understood and free to explore the subject more in depth or (b) He feels discovered and may try to deny to the listener and to himself his feelings of jealousy.
Whatever reaction Tom has, the listener continues mirroring what he hears, helping the speaker sort out his own experience. If the person speaking gets defensive, the listener remains non-judgmental, hoping to open up the space for true communication.
When a person listens without passing judgement, it frees up others to be authentic, to express themselves and to accept who they truly are.
Note the heavy emphasis on “listening without judging“. A person’s natural reaction to “judgement” tends to be defensiveness. Rather than opening up, people tend to do the opposite when they don’t feel “heard”, and this defensiveness can often be reflected back by the listener (or judgement passer, in this case), leading to all sorts of undesirable results, such as arguments, fights, or someone storming off mad and doing goddess knows what.
Another clue that you aren’t truly “listening” to what someone is saying, is, are you “waiting to talk”. The next time you are conversing with someone, ask yourself this, are you already formulating a response in your mind before the other person has finished speaking? If so, you are “waiting to talk”. If you are “waiting to talk”, then how are you TRULY listening to what the other person is saying? Try to remember to focus on your “reflecting listening” skills, and instead of “waiting to talk”, or waiting to say what YOU want to say, try to UNDERSTAND what the other person is saying. You’ll be surprised at how much these simple techniques can improve your life by improving your relationships with the people in it.
I hope that you have found this post helpful and will use what has been discussed here to help develop your own I3 skills! Now, go forth and LISTEN!