Listening – the most essential communication skill

‘Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.’

 William Shakespeare

Listening is one way we show that we respect, appreciate and value others. It also shows that we are concerned for their well-being. It is the most important skill to develop if you want to improve your communication skills.

It’s often said that we have two ears and one mouth, and this is the correct ratio in which to use them. Not only will you become a special person for others, but you’ll be able to influence them, if you want to. But be careful – if you listen only to manipulate them, they’re unlikely to ever want anything to do with you again.

Why listen?

Why listen? There are a multitude of reasons, including:

  • To understand someone else’s views, attitudes and
  • To receive information or instructions.
  • To be entertained.
  • To discover what others really think of you.
  • To be able to to influence the course of events.

Don’t you like it when someone gives you their undivided attention? Isn’t this a special experience? Perhaps that’s why some people are willing to pay for an hour with a therapist – to have someone really listen!

Seek to understand before making yourself understood.

Dr Steven Covey

Three Levels of Listening

We listen on three levels, depending on how important we regard the exchange.

  1. Little or no attention

The mind is elsewhere, absorbed in our own thoughts. We nod and mutter in the right place, but we’re not really listening at all. Others are rarely fooled, of course – our body language and facial expression give us away. And it creates negative feelings. How do you feel when you’re not being listened to?

2. Pseudo-listening

Sometimes we only hear a small proportion of what is said because we’re not that interested. Examples include casual interchanges at social functions (i.e. ‘small talk’). We listen just carefully enough to respond to polite questions such as ‘How are you?’ or remarks about the weather.

Pseudo-listening includes allowing ourselves to be easily distracted, such as watching TV through the corner of an eye, looking at the clock and eavesdropping on other conversations nearby, or being distracted by the person’s physical make-up or clothing.

3. Perfect hearing

Perfect hearing only happens when we are genuinely interested and willing to give our full attention. It goes beyond listening to words; it uses all the senses, including the sixth sense, intuition. Perfect hearing means being fully involved, emotionally and intellectually.

Active Listening

A man went to see a counsellor about his marriage. The counsellor told him to go home and for two weeks listen to every word his wife said. He returned a fortnight later and reported that the situation was much improved.

‘Now go home,’ said the counsellor, ‘and listen to every word she’s not saying.’

This is indeed the art of listening – to hear the message behind the words, and then show that you’ve understood. Effective listening is not a passive activity: it’s not always easy to listen to everything that’s said, especially if:

  • You think the other person is waffling
  • You disagree with what they’re saying
  • They are expressing very strong feelings
  • You think they’re being aggressive
  • There are too many distractions
  • Your mind wanders off
  • You are busy rehearsing what you’re going to say.

Good listening does not mean indiscriminately accepting everything you hear or altering your own opinions without good cause – be flexible, but hold true to your own values.

Twelve rules of good listening

1. Be fully present

 Stop what you’re doing and focus your full attention on the other person. Look at their face, watch their eyes and observe their body language. Listen for the nuances in their tone of voice.

Emotions can get in the way of good communication. People who feel insecure, worried, suspicious, or hurt are simply not very receptive. Good listening requires energy. When you’re feeling low, you don’t feel as motivated to pay attention.

2. Take responsibility

If you find yourself getting emotional about the speaker has said, take a few deep breaths and calm and centre yourself.

The responsibility for making sure you understand the full message is yours. If you don’t hear, ask them to repeat it. If you don’t understand, ask. Take the initiative. Don’t leave it to the other person.

3. Make time

How often do we hear, ‘Sorry, too busy.’ ‘I’ve only got ten minutes. If you want more, you’ll have to make an appointment.’

Good listening takes time and patience, and the belief that others are worthy of your time.

4. Show that you are listening

Show that you are listening. Let them know they’ve been heard. Here’s a useful mnemonic: ‘SOFTEN’:

  • Smile and project your warmth
  • Adopt an Open posture (e.g. uncrossed arms/legs)
  • Lean Forward and Face them squarely
  • Use Touch (where appropriate)
  • Make Eye contact (but don’t stare)
  • Nod your head to show understanding and/or approval

Do these in a non-threatening manner. For example, touch can be a gesture of warmth and support, but it can also be misinterpreted. Similarly, prolonged eye contact can be disconcerting (3 to 4 seconds is quite sufficient). A useful tip is to gaze at the bridge of the nose rather than straight into the eyes – it’s less intimidating.

5. Don’t interrupt

Don’t interrupt unless seeking clarification. If you catch yourself interrupting, stop immediately, apologise, and invite them to continue. When the speaker has finished, count to three before replying. This way, you know they’re not just stopping to take a breath.

In some native North American cultures, in meetings only the person holding the ‘talking stick’ is allowed to speak. This way, they are listened to without interruption.

6. Observe body language

Reading body language is essential to pick up the message behind the words. Remember, there is eight times more information in a person’s nonverbal communication than in their words! For a real understanding of people, pay more attention to what they do than what they say – it’s very illuminating!

Here are some clues:

  • Eyes looking down or away – self-consciousness or guilt.
  • Pupils widen if they like what you are saying and narrow if they don’t.
  • Raised eyebrow – disbelief.
  • Rubbing the nose or pulling the ears – they don’t understand, even if they say they do.
  • Hand touching the mouth – anxious or trying to deceive.
  • Folded or crossed arms – nervous, shut off from you (or feeling cold!)
  • Tapping on a table or chair – nervousness or impatience.
  • Tremor in voice – nervousness.
  • Monotone voice – unemotional.
  • Shrugging the shoulders – indifference.
  • Facing you squarely, full height, smiling, head forward – confidence.

7. Focus on the content

Try to ignore extraneous factors, such as their appearance, accent, choice of words, grammar, etc. Their vocabulary may be limited, or you may not like their accent.

Feelings about the situation or environment in which the communication takes place can be barriers to understanding. For example, if you hate your job, it may easily colour every communication you have when at work. Unless we are aware, we tend to project our attitudes, beliefs and feelings onto other people, assuming they think, feel and respond as we do.

8. Check that you’ve heard correctly

This is a basic tenet of empathy. It reassures a person that you have been listening, and also paves the way further conversation. One way to do this is to try and put what you’ve heard into your own words and feed it back. There are several useful word patterns:

  • ‘You feel… because…’ (E.g. ‘You feel worried because you haven’t heard from your mother for several weeks.’)
  • ‘What I understand you to be saying is…’

Alternatively, reflect back what you heard in different words:

  • ‘So you don’t see much of a future in this job…’
  • ‘So you don’t think the scheme will work…’
  • ‘It seems to me you don’t think the relationship will last…’

(NB. Your choice of words should contain an element of the person’s thoughts and/or feelings and the events related to those feelings.)

If this is a new skill for you, use it sparingly at first. Practise with friends until you are confident you can do it without being obvious, and make sure your tone conveys an eagerness to understand – this is more important than ‘technical’ correctness.

9. If you’re still not clear, ask for clarification

If you’re still not clear, ask directly for clarification:’I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand. Could you please explain…’

10. Use thinking time effectively

Our brains can process information four times faster than our vocal chords can deliver it, creating spare thinking time during conversations. Stay focused. Shut out distractions and you are less likely to miss important points.

11. Ask open questions

Open questions are an excellent way of showing interest, initiating a conversation and keeping it going. Closed questions require a brief answer, normally ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’ (e.g. ‘What time is it?’ or ‘Do you agree?’). Open questions encourage the other person to speak. For example:

  • Tell me more about…
  • How do you mean?
  • In what way?

 12. Learn to cope with silence

Silence can be uncomfortable. Good listeners don’t assume the other person has nothing more to say when they stopped talking. During moments of silence, their mind is still active; this is when moments of insight can take place. So be patient, even if it feels disconcerting.

Intuitive Listening

Finally, be aware that we also receive and transmit information intuitively. We often get strong feelings about another person without necessarily knowing why – nothing in their speech or nonverbals explains it.

Women are generally believed to be better at this than men. For example, married men are often puzzled by their wives’ ability to sense what they are up to! One of the reasons for this is that the left and right hemispheres of the female brain are more connected to each other. They exchange more information more rapidly than for males, which is why women often appear to ‘just know’, leaving their men folk baffled as to how they know.

Never discount intuition or telepathy. They are real, albeit it scientifically unexplained.

©David Lawrence Preston, 24.4.2016

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