Listening and hearing are not the same thing. Most of us were fortunate to be born with hearing, but listening is a skill that must be learned and practiced in order to use it successfully. When you hear something, sound enters your eardrum, passes through your ear canal, and registers in your brain. Listening is what you do with that sound and how you interpret it.
Here are some tips for successful listening:
- Listen intentionally for people’s names.
- Listen with interest.
- Try to get rid of your assumptions.
- Listen for what isn’t said.
Listening is hard work. When other people are listening to us, they have the same difficulties we do in trying to focus on a message. Our minds wander, noises or thoughts distract us, and we can be thinking about what to do next.
Active listening means that we try to understand things from the speaker’s point of view. It includes letting the speaker know that we are listening and that we have understood what was said. This is not the same as hearing, which is a physical process, where sound enters the eardrum and messages are passed to the brain. Active listening can be described as an attitude that leads to listening for shared understanding.
When we make a decision to listen for total meaning, we listen for the content of what is being said as well as the attitude behind what is being said. Is the speaker happy, angry, excited, sad…or something else entirely?
Responding to Feelings
The content (the words spoken) is one thing, but the way that people feel really gives full value to the message. Responding to the speaker’s feelings adds an extra dimension to listening. Are they disgusted and angry or in love and excited? Perhaps they are ambivalent! These are all feelings that you can reply to in your part of the conversation.
Really listening means that we are also very conscious of the non-verbal aspects of the conversation.
- What are the speaker’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture telling us?
- Is their voice loud or shaky?
- Are they stressing certain points?
- Are they mumbling or having difficulty finding the words they want to say?
When you are listening to someone, these techniques will show a speaker that you are paying attention, provided you are genuine in using them.
Physical indicators include making eye contact, nodding your head from time to time, and leaning into the conversation.
You can also give verbal cues or use phrases such as “Uh-huh,” “Go on,” “Really!” and, “Then what?”
You can use questions for clarification or summarizing statements. Examples:
- “Do you mean they were charging $4.00 for just a cup of coffee?”
- “So after you got a cab, got to the store, and found the right sales clerk, what happened then?”
Tips for Becoming a Better Listener
- Make a decision to listen. Close your mind to clutter and noise and look at the person speaking with you. Give them your undivided attention.
- Don’t interrupt people. Make it a habit to let them finish what they are saying. Respect that they have thoughts they are processing and speaking about, and wait to ask questions or make comments until they have finished.
- Keep your eyes focused on the speaker and your ears tuned to their voice. Don’t let your eyes wander around the room, just in case your attention does too.
- Carry a notebook or start a conversation file on your computer. Write down all the discussions that you have in a day. Capture the subject, who spoke more (were you listening or doing a lot of the talking?), what you learned in the discussion, as well as the who, what, when, where, why, and how aspects of it. Once you have conducted this exercise 8-10 times, you will be able to see what level your listening skills are currently at.
- Ask a few questions throughout the conversation. When you ask, people will know that you are listening to then, and that you are interested in what they have to say. Your ability to summarize and paraphrase will also demonstrate that you heard them.
- When you demonstrate good listening skills, they tend to be infectious. If you want people to communicate well at work, you have to set a high example.