How Well Do You Listen?
An anonymous saying caught my attention the other day: Conversation is a vocal competition in which the one who is catching his breath is called the listener.
There is a lot of truth in that saying. How often have you been in a conversation where both of you entirely missed what each other had to say. You went away mumbling, “He never listens” or “She didn’t hear a thing I said.”
It seems to me that most of the conversations we have as human beings are competitive. We are much more interested in arguing for our own position, making a witty comeback, poking holes in what the other person is saying, or telling our own counter-story to the story that the other person is telling. We pretend to pay attention while we are formulating our rebuttal, putting together a humorous retort, or rehearsing our counter-story mentally.
A somewhat higher level of listening is Passive Listening. You are interested in hearing what the other person is saying, you are faced toward the other person and have eye contact. But, you sit there like an empty cup simply letting the other person fill it up with words. You don’t give any non-verbal cues that you are listening – no head nods or facial expression that suggests you are with the speaker. No “Uh-huh’s,” or comments that indicate that you understand what the person is saying. You’re just there. When people listen to you passively, you probably go away saying, “Well, I might as well have talked to the barn door,” or “Why doesn’t she talk to me?” There’s a big difference between merely hearing someone’s words and really listening for the person’s message or feeling.
Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood. I think he’s right. Maybe you do, too.
The most satisfying and helpful form of listening is Active Listening. The speaker gets that idea that you are really listening because you are face to face, eye to eye, you provide non-verbal movements that pace the speaker, you make brief comments that echo the person’s message and you paraphrase what the person said occasionally to make sure you understand. It really feels good when someone listens to you that attentively.
If you’re just “shooting the breeze” or exchanging social niceties, it might not matter that much. If a friend simply asks what time it is, it’s hardly necessary to sit down face to face and listen for how the person feels about whatever time of day it happens to be. But, if there is any substance at all in the conversation – and often there is more to a comment than the surface meaning – then the most important thing you can do is to listen carefully.
How to Listen Actively
Here are some tips on how to listen actively:
• Position yourself to listen. Face the person, make an appropriate level of eye
contact, use head-nods or facial expression to let the person know you are
following. Adopt an open posture.
• Focus on the person and conversation. Don’t be sorting your mail, checking
something on your computer or cleaning your glasses, etc.
• Steer the conversation toward the other person’s interests.
• Let the person finish his or her thoughts before you respond. Refrain from
interrupting and cutting people off.
• Help the person tell his story or express her message clearly. Use receptive
language: “I see,” “Oh, really,” etc. Ask open-ended questions that probe
the issue or allow silence so the person can say more.
• Occasionally paraphrase what the speaker said to be sure that you got the
right message. Clear up misperceptions.
• Listen for what is not said – what’s between the lines.
• Be respectful. Validate how the person might have the position or feelings
that he or she has – even if you don’t see it the same way. Validating doesn’t
mean that you agree with the other person.
• Suspend judgment and bias. If you listen carefully, you might learn
something that will change your mind.
• If the situation doesn’t permit Active Listening, tell the person that you want
to be able to listen and schedule a firm time to do that.
Benefits of Using Active Listening
There are some pay-offs for taking the time to listen actively:
• There will be fewer hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
• You will improve interpersonal relationships.
• You will gain more friends. People like people who listen.
• You will learn more with your ears and mind open than with your mouth open.
• Other people will listen to your position more willingly if they feel they have
• Others will speak with you more frankly and openly if they know you will take
the time to listen.
• Sales people who listen to customers carefully sell more than colleagues who
are busy presenting products or services and singing their praises.
Develop your active listening skills. The benefits will come to you.