Listening, a powerful skill
Anyone with relationship experience understands the importance effective listening plays in finding compromise, working through differences and deepening mutual understanding. Listening is a real skill, one sometimes tricky to master! It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending, countering or explaining away something we don’t want to hear. There is also, of course, selective hearing. Something it seems most spouses (partners) master remarkably well!
Tongue-in-cheek aside, it is helpful to recognise that hearing and listening are quite different. Hearing is the physical mechanism through which we process sound, assuming no hearing impediments exist. Listening requires much more, it requires paying attention to the story. Specifically, story-telling: the use of language (verbal), tone of voice (non-verbal), and body language (non-verbal). Our ability to listen effectively depends on our skill in recognising and understanding both verbal and non-verbal cues.
Let’s look at six steps you can take to sharpen your listening skills, keeping in mind that effective listening is an active process.
Six steps to effective listening
- Be present (in the moment) and relaxed
- Keep an open mind
- Visualize what you’re hearing
- Ask questions to confirm your understanding
- Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker (be empathetic)
- Be attentive to what is not said
An example to illustrate the six steps in motion
Imagine that you’re a team leader sitting down with Jo (a team member) to address missing a key project deadline for the second time. The heat from above is falling on you, as leader, for the missed delivery dates. The project team members are also unhappy with Jo missing deadlines.
Your state of mind
The meeting begins with you fully present and relaxed, which means none of the feelings you may have about the pressure you’re under creep into the meeting. You go in with a clean slate from which to hold the discussion. Focus your mind on the team member and the conversation, nothing more. Earlier frustration from your son being late for the school bus, again, is long gone! You open the conversation without any preconceived ideas about why deadlines slip nor about the person themselves (such as they are unproductive or lazy). You might open by asking: “Jo, please tell me about the project delivery progress and status from your point of view”. The question is open and free from insinuation.
As Jo is speaking, you are building a mental model of what she is saying. That model may take the form of a picture or the development of abstract patterns; trust your brain to develop it as you are actively listening. Do not let your brain wander during this process. Stay focused on what is being said (not on what you want to respond with).
If something you hear is unclear, ask a question during a natural conversational lull. You might do that by opening with: “Can I clarify my understanding of something you said a few minutes ago?”
As the conversation unfolds, consider how Jo feels in the moments discussed by putting yourself in her shoes. This is not about how you would feel or would have handled the moment, it is about understanding Jo’s experience from her perspective. This process takes energy and patience to do well, however it pays off by being helpful and generous during the discussion.
Reading the discussion
As each of these activities unfolds, look for what isn’t being said. For instance, if you are talking to a friend about everything and anything and hear a lilt and laughter in their voice, you feel reassured that they’re doing well. Words convey only a portion of the message, look for shoulder tilts, eye movements, tone of voice, cadence, facial expressions and body posture. They all speak! Where you observe inconsistencies, you will need to gently explore that further to understand and then address it. Remember, the other person may not be aware of this non-verbal concept so be generous in your approach.
Are there other helpful techniques for effective listening?
There are always more good practices! A rather obvious one, albeit not commonly practiced by many, is “do not interrupt”. Interruptions by another person are frustrating; someone who feels compelled to insert their view effectively breaks listening. Interrupting can also conveys implicit messages such as “I am more important than you”, “I don’t care what you think”, “I don’t have time for you” or “I will win this conversation”. In conversation, it is important to remember that we each think and speak at a different pace. The onus is on the fastest thinker (and agile speaker) to slow down the pace and let other thoughtful individuals express themselves at their rate.
Maintaining eye contact
When engaging in conversation, face the speaker and maintain soft eye contact (meaning don’t stare, as that can intimidate). It is challenging to develop rapport when someone is scanning a room, looking at a phone screen or gazing into space. It leaves us wondering how much of their attention we have. Half of it? Ten percent? In such cases, look at them even if they aren’t looking at you. Be sensitive to cultural differences which may inhibit eye contact as well as shyness, uncertainty, or other hidden emotions.
As you are speaking, give the speaker feedback. Acknowledge the person using something shared to play back their emotions. For instance, “you must be thrilled your book is being published!” or through perfectly timed “hmmm” or “uh huh.” The point of this step is demonstrating to the speaker that you are actively listening to them.
Small steps build success
These small steps done together form the skill of effective listening. Perhaps Ralph G. Nichols captures listening best: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
How do you rate your listening skills?
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