The art of listening seems to be lost within a world of increasing distractions and, ironically, easier ways to communicate. While we spend roughly 60% of our communication time listening, research shows that we retain as little as 25%. However, listening remains a critical skill; because how we understand what is being conveyed to us, determines what we do or don’t do.
Is it possible to retune our ears for conscious listening?
What is Listening?
Listening is an activity and not something that’s passive. Listening is what we do to make sense of and respond to what we have heard. Through it we receive information, understand something and then respond accordingly. Effectively, listening can spur us into action or prevent us from doing something. It is also a fundamental part of good communication. Which determines how we view and interact with those around us.
4 Basic Goals of Listening
- To understand someone
- In order to enjoy who someone is
- When one helps or comforts someone
- To learn and understand something
With this in mind it’s good to understand that there are three approaches one can take when listening to someone.
The 3 Approaches to Listening
- Attentive Listening: These listeners focus on what the speaker is saying. They patiently allow them to finish their thoughts and don’t get distracted from the conversation underway.
- Responsive Listening: This listener is attentive in their listening and encourages the speaker to continue talking through nonverbal and verbal cues. For example: Nodding, smiling, leaning towards the speaker or saying “Uh-huh”, “I see” …
- Active Listening: An active listener pays attention to what, how and why someone is saying something. This is to understand the feelings, thoughts and needs behind what is being relayed. They employ responsive listening skills with the addition of paraphrasing back to the speaker what they have heard. This is to check the accuracy of their understanding of what’s been said once the speaker is finished.
Ideally, you want to be an Active listener. Whereby you are most likely to understand the other person, communicate effectively and provide a meaningful contribution within a conversation. It is also the listening approach by which you are most likely to learn and retain information.
What Prevents Us from Listening?
Experts liken the practice of listening to a mental process of extraction. They say that the biggest blocks to listening is noise. Various types of noise interfere with the listeners ability to successfully decode what they are hearing. Potentially creating a situation fraught with misunderstanding.
Different Types of Noise
- Physical Noise: Such as a train racing past or workers drilling nearby.
- Semantic Noise: A disturbance in understanding the actual words spoken. For example, due to a language barrier or use of professional jargon.
- Psychological Noise: Our own preoccupation with our thoughts and feelings which end up drawing us inside of ourselves. Thereby negatively impacting our ability to be fully present with the other person and what’s being said.
Being a good listener is crucial to efficacy. Clinical Psychologist Marc Lipshitz, a lecturer at SACAP, advises that the key to being a good listener is to “be quiet”. He says that, in his first class with new students, he asks pairs of students to listen to each other without saying a word. This is to highlight that body language, and simply being in the presence of someone else, conveys a wealth of information about the communicator.
Ourselves as a Barrier to Proper Listening
Our own mental preoccupations are one of the major barriers to effective listening. Often, we presume that because someone is speaking to us, we are expected to fix or solve their problem. As a result, this assumption can make us anxious and this inner anxiety deafens us to what we are hearing. And while they talk, instead of listening attentively, we are developing our response and trying to find a solution.
Effectively, what we have forgotten is what it actually means to help. In a conversation, our role is simply one of facilitation when someone shares a problem. This means guiding the other person to gain insight and find their own solutions.
The Importance of Self-Awareness
To be an effective listener a degree of self-awareness is needed. Thus, understanding and dealing with our own feelings is the first step to helping others deal with theirs. This means that good communication is about sharing of meaning. Such that it isn’t what our message does to the listener, but rather what the listener does with our message.
How to be an Effective Listener
Firstly, because listening is an activity it requires us to be fully present and stay focused while someone is talking.
While you are listening, try to listen with empathy. Put yourself in their shoes, give them the benefit of any doubt and be kind. It’s very important to be aware of your own body language while you listen. Try not to quickly make up your mind, adopt a critical view point or judge the person talking. This will help you to look at things from various perspectives. It will also prevent you from reaching an incorrect conclusion or making unfounded assumptions.
Think about what they have said. Compare it to your own knowledge of the world and people around you as well as how things operate. While they are talking also watch out for visual cues and notice their body language. Compare what you see and what you are hearing – do they match up? Doing these things will help you when you check that what you’ve heard is what they meant. You do this by paraphrasing what you think they have said back to them and asking clarifying intended questions.
5 Listening Skills
- Pay attention
- Indicate (show) you listening
- Provide feedback
- Delay judgement
- Respond suitably
Really listening to someone is tiring. This is because being fully present with someone can be exhausting. However, it is a huge gift to the person. Most often it results in them walking away feeling acknowledged and understood, which is invaluable. We all need witnesses to our worlds. And the best witness is someone who is able to sit with us through our dark places and really listen, without judgement.