How to be an effective listener

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”– Dalai Lama

Being a good listener is one of the most important life-skill we all can have. In today’s fast paced and high-tech world, communication has become an important means of achieving our goals and objectives. Yet we devote very less time when it comes to listening to one another. When was the last time, you listened to what the other person is saying without any distraction? We often have a tendency to focus more on our words rather than others’ words. In a hurry to get our message across, we often neglect the important part of communication, which is listening, be it while listening to our peers, coworkers, friends or family members. If you fail to understand what is being expressed to you whether at work, or home or school, you will also fail in providing a meaningful response.

According to an ancient Chinese Proverb ‘To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well.’ Your true potential is always is directly linked to the quality of your listening skills. In this age of instant communication we are in a hurry to communicate what’s in our mind or focus more on replying than in good listening. We fail to realise, a lot can also be learned by means of listening from others in our day to day conversations.

We often confuse the physical act of hearing with listening. The basic difference being hearing is through ears, but listening is through mind. Hearing only involves perceiving sounds. On the contrary, listening is receiving the information, paying full attention to the words and sentences and understanding them. There is lot of importance given to ‘problem solving’, ‘goal setting’ and other skills to improve our potential or productivity, but very rarely we hear about the importance of active listening and how learning to master this art can improve our overall performance.

Are you a poor listener?

According to a research, we spend much of our waking hours communicating, and more than half is spent listening. Although listening is our primary activity, most of us are poor listeners. Studies show that we are able to comprehend and retain only one-quarter of what was said in about a ten-minute talk. This is mostly because many of us are either distracted by our own thought process or we get self-justifying or busy rehearsing our response that we miss out on what is being said. Sometimes, we tend to shut ourselves to listening when we disagree with the person’s views. Also because our listening speed is faster than the other person’s speaking speed, there is a void which we fill with our thoughts or perceptions. Not able to listen properly leads to arguments, conflicts, and various other challenges in your personal or professional lives. At workplaces, it leads to more errors and wastage of time. In personal life, it may lead to misunderstandings affecting your relationships.

Why listening is more important than speaking?

Effective listening involves ability to concentrate, understand, respond and then retain what is being said. How well we listen has a significant influence on our interpersonal relationships and work effectiveness. Developing good listening skills makes you less anxious, mindful and more self-aware. A great learner is often not the speaker, but the listener. Good listening improves your communication and interpersonal skills at workplaces where it helps you to fully concentrate and engage in a discussion. You will be able to grasp the purpose of your communication so as to put forth your ideas and objectives with more clarity. It helps you provide valuable feedback, to resolve conflicts and eliminate misunderstandings.

Great leaders are people who are intuitive listeners. They recognise that knowledge is gained by listening and not by talking. Good listeners are often perceived as people leaders as they acknowledge and listen to people’s issues and this makes them feel valued. They earn the trust and respect of people by listening, understanding and being supportive of them. By actively engaging yourself in listening to others’ concerns or issues helps you develop leadership quality where you can work efficiently towards coming up with better solutions to solve their problems. Being a good listener improves mutual understanding in your personal, professional or business relationships

What does it take to be a good listener?

Self-awareness is the key to become an effective listener. To be able to sincerely listen to others is not an easy task, it requires persistence, effort and should be able to set aside your views to listen to the other person without being judgmental and by being open minded. It is a mindset which you learn from people by hearing what they have to say by being genuinely curious and interested.

Listening is a dynamic process that involves receiving , understanding, retaining, evaluating and responding. All of these stages happen naturally in a short time during conversation. Here are some tips to improve each of these areas.

Receiving and absorbing the information is the first stage in listening process. Here are some tips to pay attention while receiving the information.

Avoid distractions. Put away your digital distractions, when you are engaged in a conversation. Try to maintain your eye contact with the speaker by keeping aside papers, books, or phones or any other gadgets. Mentally screen out distractions like background noise or activity. No matter how open-minded we can be , we all carry emotional baggage that distracts our listening ability. Words, phrases, tone, or person’s appearance can shut down our receptivity by triggering knee-jerk reactions. Practice identifying and overcoming the knee-jerk reflexes while listening. Each time your mind starts to wander, refocus your attention to what’s being said or to what you are listening rather than focusing on what you are going to say.

Pay attention to non-verbal cues. If you only hear the words someone is saying, you may miss the important meaning being conveyed. Some people don’t overtly verbalise their disagreements but say as much with their actions, body language or physical gestures as they do with their verbal communication. Facial expression, tone if voice, eye contact, and posture all matter. Practice listening between the lines. For instance, someone who tells you that he like your idea while slouching and with his arms crossed against his chest, is actually saying two different things. Paying attention to these cues provides more clarity on the speaker’s emotional state and you can listen to something that they are communicating with their non-verbals.

Avoid interrupting. It is rude to interrupt but most often we model the opposite and tend to overlook our loud, aggressive behaviour. We tend to finish others’ sentences because we cannot slow our mental pace to listen effectively. Interrupting says that your opinion is of more importance than others’ or might imply that what you are saying is more accurate or relevant. It also might mean you don’t have time to listen or don’t really care about what’s being said. A conversation is not a contest which you are going to win. You can’t listen and talk at the same time. So, resist the urge to interrupt and let the other person say what he or she wants to say. When listening to someone talk about a problem or a difficulty, we tend to immediately suggest solutions using our own perspective to make him or her move in the direction we think is good. In most such cases, we respond to our needs rather than the needs of the other person. May be the person just wants to talk or share. Don’t impose your solutions. Before advising, ask whether they like to hear your suggestions or solutions.

Be empathetic. Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her words can be comforting. Giving undivided attention by being compassionate helps you to be an effective listener. Put yourself in their shoes and listen and allow them to express their feelings and thoughts

“The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” – Ralph Nichols

Avoid being judgmental or biased. Listen without judging or mentally criticising what is being said and without jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. Learn to separate fact from opinion. Don’t listen with an intent to have your opinions validated, but listen with an intent to learn something new. Many times we don’t pay much attention to those against whom we are biased or prejudiced. Don’t just listen to those who agree with you, but actively seek out different perspectives and listen to even those who confront and challenge you. Effective listening requires an open mind, you need to be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. Even when you have strong views, suspend your judgment, hold your criticism, and avoid arguing or selling your point right away.

Understanding is the next stage in listening process. After you have received the information, you begin to process its meaning and gain more clarity, or asking questions or rephrasing parts of the message you heard to understand the key points.

Asking questions. Ask questions only to ensure understanding or about things that unclear. Asking open-ended questions provides the other person an opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts. For instance asking ‘how would you?’ rather than ‘can you?’ encourages them to expand their ideas. Restating key points as the conversation proceeds confirms that you understood their point of view and also confirms that two of you are on the same page. Sometimes your questions might lead the speaker astray, take responsibility and work your way back to the conversation. Not only asking questions provides clarity but also encourages to reflect on a thoughtful response and provides a different perspective furthering more communication. Paraphrasing the content of the message every now and then indicates that you understood the topic and improves your awareness within the conversation.

Remembering the key elements spoken is possible only by staying engaged or connected to what’s being said in a conversation. While listening for long stretches, concentrate on and remember key concepts or phrases. Make a mental model of what’s being communicated or arrange the small details or concepts into a central theme to easily grasp the incoming information.

Evaluating You can evaluate the information and prepare your response in this stage. Remember that while evaluating, you are still a listener and not a speaker. Relate to the main idea and sort the information based on facts or opinions. Look for any prejudices or biases. You can interpret as to whether any portions of the message, if any were exaggerated or what was their intent and accordingly you can come up with a response.

Responding is still a part of the listening process. After receiving, understanding, and evaluating of the listening process, you will be better prepared to address the important points with proper awareness of the context and with clear understanding of the speaker’s perspective. While responding, be clear of what part of the message you are addressing instead of repeating or completing their sentences. You can either share about a similar experience you had or you can introduce your ideas, suggestions or thoughts.

To conclude,

What do you do in a conversation? Are you more inclined to speak or listen? When you are listening, do you stay focused or does your mind wander? Do you ask questions with an intent to understand ? Can you keep yourself from interrupting or defending or saying anything for a while? Do you encourage others to express themselves or share their opinions freely?

In order to first speak, one must learn to listen. It is when you start to listen, you discover new possibilities. Each of the above stages take place naturally during our daily conversations in very short time. Even though listening is a simple process, it may take a while to become an effective listener, like any other skill, it takes time, patience and practice. Next time when you find yourself engaging in a conversation, use the above tips to improve your listening process and make yourself more conscious and aware of your moments in the conversation.

 

 

 

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