“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.
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.
“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When it comes to doing quality work and achieving your goals, you need to work on your tasks with full concentration and free from distraction. But most people have unproductive work habits caused by unhappiness, dissatisfaction and displeasure. They do not enjoy performing the activities related to their work. Because of this they fail to optimise their performance and produce quality work. Whenever we get involved in doing a task that is interesting or enjoyable, we do it with total concentration and we lose track of time and everything around us be it the noise or people or other distractions seems to fade away. Many of us would have experienced such state at one point or another in our life like while playing a game or pursuing our hobbies or while learning a subject of our interest or while writing, dancing and so on. Such state where we feel intense, exhilarating and satisfying is called Flow state.
By achieving flow state, you can overcome the problems of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and other unproductive habits. Flow can lead to improved performance and can be the key to achieve happiness at work.
Flow state is not only limited to your work but it also optimises your performance in activities like sports, art, and learning. When you are in Flow, you can exhibit your creative skills and abilities quite easily and such state leads to your productive best irrespective of which work you are involved in.
What is ‘Flow’ state?
Flow is about enjoying what you do and is known as the state of optimal performance and engagement. Flow is often referred to as being “ in the zone” and it is directly proportional to being productive. Flow experience is mostly active and is complete immersion in an enjoyable activity. Activity can be playing a sport or pursuing a hobby or pursuing your goals. Sometimes both positive and negative behaviours can lead to state of flow. But the negative behaviour at some point will take you out of flow because of the risk involved when compared to that of a positive behaviour.
According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
According to him, we find more occasions of flow when we work rather than when we are at leisure or relaxed. This is because at work, we have clear set of goals that require appropriate response and it provides immediate feedback in terms of measurable goals completed. And also job/task tends to improve concentration and prevent distractions.
When do you experience the state of Flow?
Almost any activity can produce flow experience. You can find flow in your daily activities or while working. In fact we find more occasions of flow when we are dealing with challenging tasks than the easier ones. You also experience Flow when you push yourself to accomplish a difficult task, or while contemplating on difficult questions or recalling enjoyable experiences, or activities that keep you engaged in writing or learning about the topics you find most enjoyable. You get into a state of Flow when
• Your time spent on the task seems effortless.
• You have a sense of control over your actions.
• Your action and awareness merges during which you lose self consciousness.
• You experience timelessness.
• You receive direct and immediate feedback.
• Your goals are clearly defined.
• You are able to focus all your effort and attention in the task.
• The task is challenging, but it is doable.
• You are internally driven with a purpose and direction.
While flow experience has above components, but it is not necessary that all these need to take place together.
Almost everyone can learn to achieve flow. But those with passion, persistence and enthusiasm tend to experience more flow. On the contrary, those who are highly critical of themselves or anxious or self-conscious and self-centred experience less of flow state. Engaging in high-skill, high-challenge activities that contain clear goals and feedback structure and mastering challenging activities would allow one to experience more flow.
Why being in flow is important?
Being in flow is a sense of effortless action and if you can achieve flow state in your tasks, it allows you to focus on your goals that are clear and compatible. Research shows there is an association between Flow and peak performance where the benefits included enhanced well-being and self-concept. It triggers positive mindset, grit and creativity. Being in flow state enables you to focus your attention completely in the task at hand leaving no room for contradictions thereby leading to better choices, decisions and more positive outcomes. Flow can help you achieve happiness, satisfaction and productivity.
“The greatest athletes are the ones who ‘make it look easy’…The athletes and others in peak performance states are not ‘wanting’ to perform well but are engaged in the flow of doing.” – M. Hutchinson
People who experience flow are more productive as they tend to ignore distractions with more control over their thoughts. They pay close attention to details which often help them identify opportunities to act, set goals, gain feedback and go after bigger challenges. Flow activities in learning provide enthusiasm, provide intrinsic rewards and help you gain new skills.
How to achieve the Flow state?
Achieving a state of flow can be great way to make your routine chores or tasks more engaging and enjoyable. People who mastered certain skills often experience flow state and they make whatever they are doing look easy as they are totally engaged in it. You can achieve such a state by making the components of flow available in your work or other activities you pursue. Here are some ways to achieve the Flow state in your work.
Make your tasks more challenging
A boring task can be turned into more challenging by finding better ways to do it or to do it more efficiently or to find ways to accomplish more on the task by paying more attention to it. Approaching a challenging task without any prejudice and with more determination, you can make it more meaningful and can achieve a state of flow. One way to stay in flow is to consistently increase the challenge of your tasks, but not make them too hard. The task should be neither too demanding nor too simple for your abilities. It has to equal your skill level to tackle the difficulty or challenging part of the task.
Develop your skills
You can achieve state of flow by engaging in challenging tasks or work that are doable. Achieving flow state is enjoying what you do. so by developing your skills, you can match up to the challenging tasks which otherwise seem much harder than they actually are. When you are devoting all of your energy to learn new skills that are required to achieve a larger goal, this puts your thoughts, feelings and action in harmony achieving a state of flow.
“If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If they are too great, one can return to flow state by learning new skills.” – csikszentmihalyi
Set clear goals
Flow is about achieving your goals to your satisfaction. Goals add motivation and structure to what you are doing. Whether you are in learning or working or in creative field, learning to set effective goals helps you to gain focus you need and working towards achieving them. Gain clarity about your circumstances and the behaviours you are indulging in. Setting goals and aspirations provide you with a sense of direction that will help you to get in the state of flow. A clearly defined passionate life purpose can help you bring back to flow state.
Establish your priorities
Your core values will determine how you you prioritise your life. If your priorities have meaning and aligned with your life’s purpose, then this will help you find the motivation you need to get into flow state. By prioritising, you can match your skills with whatever tasks at hand or your purpose. And also figure out the required skills you need to achieve your goals and can extend yourself beyond your current ability level. Slight stretching of your ability is a good way to a experience flow state. Reevaluate your core values and priorities by checking if there are any specific habits and fears that might be holding you back from entering the flow state.
Expand your possibilities
A personal evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses let’s you identify the skills you need to build or work upon. Sometimes you may not find your flow because you have closed yourself off to new experiences. Find your flow by opening yourself to new possibilities or by gathering new insights and by exposing yourself to new ideas and opportunities. Surround yourself with people who motivate and inspire you and those who tend to challenge you. This way you can step out of your comfort zone to open up to new possibilities.
Find your motivation
Being in flow state is by doing a intrinsically rewarding task. If you are Extrinsically motivated, motivation lasts as long as you receive a reward and can avoid a negative outcome. Such motivation is short-lived and doesn’t make you intrinsically driven which is important to find your flow. You can attain flow through voluntary engagement in a task that you find enjoyable. Without intrinsic motivation, you will fall back to indulging in unhelpful and limiting habits that obstruct your flow. By being intrinsically driven, that is doing a task for the sake of doing and not because of external factors, you will always find your flow.
Strike a balance
We experience many emotional states when trying to perform a task depending on the difficulty of the task and our skill level. If the work or the task isn’t challenging, we experience boredom and if our skill levels don’t match any challenging task, we could experience anxiety and worry. Similarly when we are not motivated enough and under too much or too little pressure, our performance often declines and becomes unproductive. According to inverted U model created by Psychologists Roger Yerkes & John Dodson, there is a perfect medium of pressure where people perform at their best. According to them, when we are overloaded with work or under high pressure, our negative emotions like stress and anxiety increases. Instead by balancing your skills with the difficulty of the task or work you are pursuing, you can enter a state of Flow.
Guide your focus
If you control how you interpret the events that become part of your conscious experience, you are more likely to experience happiness and therefore more flow. Attention is an important tool that can be used to control your flow experience. When your focus is not guided like when you are idle or distracted, your mind tends to lean towards the negative paying more attention to negative experiences and information than to the positive. Guiding your freed-up focus for goal-striving or towards your intentions, and focusing your attention on one task at a time improves your flow experience.
“You can only put your conscious attention on one thing at a time. If that’s all that has your attention, you’re in flow.”
To sum up. If you are willing to create conditions that would allow you to experience flow at work by having clear goals, establishing your priorities, receiving feedback, emphasising on focused attention, you can use your skills to their fullest capacity to create things that matter. Follow the above mentioned suggestions to achieve a state of flow in your everyday life be it personal or professional. Having a purpose and right direction, you can make better decisions about to what to pay attention to in any given moment , which, in turn, allows you to engage more fully in your activities, making them more engaging and enjoyable thereby making Flow a more likely outcome.