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Listen up!

Effective communication starts with hearing what someone means when they speak.

There’s an assumption in our society that everyone is born to listen effectively. After all, that’s what our ears are for. Yet, we know there’s a great deal of miscommunication and disrupted relationships at home and at work simply because people don’t listen well.

That’s too bad because approximately 45 to 55 per cent of our time is spent listening. We listen to understand what a colleague is saying, we listen to new ideas, we listen to what’s being said at staff meetings, we listen to news reports and we listen for customer needs.

I think people take listening skills for granted. We don’t realize there’s a lot more to listening than we think.


What it takes to be a good listener

A good listener gives the other person their full attention by maintaining eye contact.

Good listeners recognize and acknowledge what is being said through their body language and by asking appropriate questions for clarification. Good listeners make the speaker feel welcome and important.

At the same time, listening is more than just paying attention to the speaker, it is also about self-awareness and the words we choose that reflect what we think about ourselves.

For instance, someone who continually uses the word "should", as in "I should get this backlog of work done," or "I should talk to my colleagues about this project," may simply be repeating a parental-oriented direction, rather than making an independent decision. In other words, the word "should" raises the question as to whether or not it is the individual’s true desire, or if they believe they need to do something because of their experience while growing up.


There are three levels of listening

As I indicated, listening is more complicated than we think. For instance, there are three levels of listening, each of which we move in and out of every day, all day long. How many times have you "tuned in and tuned out" of a conversation? Perhaps you weren’t interested in what was being said or you didn’t respect a person’s opinion. So you only listened to bits and pieces of the conversation. This is known as level one listening.

A second level of listening will find you hearing your speaker’s words but not grasping the meaning and/or the emotion and feelings behind the words. In fact, you are giving the speaker the impression you are listening when you are not. Think about the last time you started daydreaming right in the middle of a conversation.

A third level of listening, and the one we should be using most of the time, is called emphatic or active listening. This listening skill allows you to accurately hear what is being said without judging the other person. It enables you to acknowledge the speaker and make sure you don’t get distracted. Active listening leads to mutual understanding because you are accurately interpreting the message and then responding appropriately. Active listening helps to build trust and respect.


The importance of self-awareness

With listening being such an important skill, we need to take care to recognize when we are not practicing good skills.

This includes tuning people out because we don’t like their views or we dislike them personally. It includes making assumptions before a person speaks or forming a rebuttal in your head before the speaker finishes. It also includes listening only to what you want to hear, blotting out the rest of the communication and/or interrupting the speaker.

We learn how to listen throughout our childhood and as a result we listen through filters. We filter what we hear through our memories, values, beliefs, our interests, our prejudices and our attitudes.

That’s why it is so important for us to be self-aware and to recognize how our early life experiences affect our listening skills.


Effective listening skills take time and effort

How does one go about improving their listening skills? The following tips will help to develop good listening:

  1. Look for common ground: When listening to someone talk, try to focus on finding one thing that will be of use to you. How does a specific idea relate to you? How could you use it? Recognize that the speaker believes their thoughts are important. Making an effort to think of where they are coming from and why will help you to find common ground and listen more carefully.
  2. Respond and acknowledge: Ignore the delivery style and stimulate the conversation by giving non-committal acknowledgements such as, "Oh, I see" or "Mmmm." Focus on the general or central idea without getting bogged down with facts and details. Try to be fully in the moment, listening for ideas.
  3. Make notes: If you are going to be listening to a longer lecture, try to research or read about the topic before meeting. Take notes of the key points. Use a mind-mapping strategy using key words to help you remember.
  4. Resist distractions: Listening can’t take place when there is extraneous noise and distractions in your environment. Try to find a place that is quiet and there are no distractions. Move if you have to.
  5. Avoid reacting to hot buttons: Hot buttons are words that set off emotional alarms to a listener. If you react, you are hooked, you will overreact and this will get the entire communication off track. We need to be aware of these words and not react to them when they are used by others. Ask the person to clarify the words they use. Try to understand why the word upsets you, but don’t respond negatively.
  6. Keep an open mind: Be careful not to judge the other person while listening. If you mentally criticize the speaker, then you are being distracted from listening. Avoid jumping to conclusions before the speaker finishes his thoughts. Listen to the words and try to picture his/her scenario in your mind.
  7. Analyze non-verbals: Watch for eye contact, body language and facial expressions. These communication elements can reveal a great deal about how the person feels about themselves and whether or not they feel confident.
  8. Listen from the right attitude: Ensure you approach all your speakers with an "I’m OK, you’re OK" attitude. This puts you on equal footing with the speaker and you’ll find yourself being a mirror that reflects back constructive comments on the message you have heard.


Good listening is not only a skill, it is a gift — a gift of time.

Listening helps to build good relationships, ensure understanding, helps to resolve conflicts and helps to avoid misunderstandings at home and at work. In today’s world of instant communication, listening to and interpreting messages effectively is more important than ever.

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