“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say” – American author Bryan H. McGill
It is difficult to think of anything that could improve relationships more effectively or faster, in either business or social setting, than improving one’s listening skills. Listening is the most important part of communication. Although speaking clearly and correctly presenting what you want to say are very important aspects of communication, it is incumbent upon the listener to ascertain whether clear communication has occurred. People speak at different rates of speed and with varying degree of clarity and completeness. It is, indeed, challenging and tiring to understand someone who is not fully capable of grasping the maxim: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” But even in these difficult scenarios, it is the listener’s responsibility to draw out the intended meaning for communication to be complete.
Studies have shown that respondents in employment situations almost universally believed they were as effective, or more effective, at communicating than were their co-workers. Everyone believed they were above average. Generally, people accept the importance of listening skills, but when pressed they typically believe their own skills to be more than adequate. They do not feel a need to improve their listening skills. However, additional research indicates that the average person has only 25% efficiency in practice and listening.
Inadequate communication can be expensive in dollars and cents as well as emotional distress. The consequences of poor listening skills that retard, confuse, or invalidate communication, can include some devastating outcomes. Whether in your personal life or your occupation, miscommunication can result in misunderstandings and invalid assumptions that directly or indirectly lead to trouble.
Misunderstanding that are “communicated” in this way in your personal life can lead to hurt feelings and even the loss or relationship. In the business world these missed opportunities to correctly communicate can lead to ineffective or misguided decisions, errors in judgement or in actions taken, or even in lost contracts and lawsuits. At the very least, miscommunication can easily lead to deteriorating morale in the form of reduced team cohesion, lowered productivity, loss of leadership credibility, and work that needs to be re-done are all consequences for a financial bottom line. Ineffective decision making and costly mistakes can be the result.
The biggest part of developing better listening skills may be in learning how we listen differently to ourselves than to others. Before you attempt to improve your listening skills you need to be aware of any differences you have developed between “hearing” the words of others and reacting to your own words. It is about finding the difference, try to reshape your attitude so that your internal reaction to the words of others is more like that you experience when speaking, yourself.
If, for example, you feel more pleasure hearing your own words, you may have a problem with self-perception that interferes with how you perceive others. In casual conversation, listen to your internal reaction to the words you speak and then to those spoken by others. Your internal reaction should feel about the same in both cases. It if does not, you may need to adjust your thinking about the importance of words spoken by others. If you do not view them as having importance equal to your own, you will have trouble listening to them. Concentration and self-training can correct this, and you will need to improve here before moving on with the development of better listening skills. You have to want to listen before you can actually listen.
The biggest difference between a good listener and one who is not, is how well they can can maintain a conversation by not talking too much. When truly trying to listen, there is not need to talk. The two reaction can be counterproductive rather than beneficial The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli recognized this when he said, “Silence is the mother of truth.”
Asking questions can be helpful, but it can also be an interruption of the speaker’s continuity and train of thought. Save your questions instead of blurting them out the first moment they come to mind. If you can not remember them that long, they probably were not that important anyway.
If you have a question and the time has come to ask it, make certain it is one that requests clarification rather than one that simply offers you the chance to interject your own idea. Remember this about listening, not talking.
Once you have established that you want to listen, it is time to practice and make listening habitual. When your internal reaction to the words of others has elevated to the level of your reaction to your own words, lock in on the other person’s words. Try to imagine that they are your words coming out of your own mouth. Make them your own. Feel what the speaker is feeling as he/she speaks. Encourage them to continue be maintaining the image of yourself as an eager listener. You do this with your body language, facial expression, eye contact, and appropriate feedback.
When you get serious about improving your own listening skills, there are steps you can take to accomplish this more easily and more quickly. Here are five actions steps to ease and speed up the process.
Body language is important from the perspectives of both speaker and listener. The language conveyed by the speaker should be noted and appreciated by the listener, as it is an integral part of the communicated message. But the body language of the listener is even more important. It conveys the message that the listener is attentive and interested in the message. It encourages the communication to continue and stay focused.
Posture and facial expression depict the listener’s appreciation for the speaker and her message. Facing the speaker and perhaps even leaning slightly forward will reinforce the speaker’s interest in making the message understood.
One key element to establishing the internal connection with a speaker is establishing and maintaining eye contact. It should go without saying why this is so critical, but many people do not fully appreciate the important message this sends. It says, “I am so interested in your message I will not take my eyes off of your communication of it.” There is not stronger reinforcement.
If eye contact is the strongest feedback you can give to a speaker, two more strong examples can be also be employed. At key junctures in the delivery of the message, a speaker will invariably slow or stop momentarily. These points offer the listener the opportunity to reinforce the communication with a nod and perhaps a smile, or with a verbalized response such as a quietly uttered “Yes,” or even just “Uh-huh.” Reinforced with positive body language, these verbal or visual cues add to the connection between speaker and listener. But you do want to insert a question in on these brief stopping point. Wait to do this until an obvious longer stopping point in reach. And then remember what kinds of questions serve to advance communication and which kinds serve to block it.
Even a well-intentioned question can side-track a speaker’s train of thought. So, be certain your question does not lead her astray by focusing on some other person, place, or thing. Those might be viable subjects for conversation, but this particular conversation already has a subject, and it should be maintained until the speaker decides the discussion has run its course.
Finally, one strong sign that the listener is truly engaged and desires full communication of the message is the listener’s willingness to briefly recap the message. This demonstrates the listener’s interest, but it also can display any weaknesses that have occurred in understanding. It is the perfect time to establish the intended meaning and that it has been communicated, since both parties have had no time for forgetting or other interference.
Listening: It is the true source of understanding and the most natural catalyst for communication. Practice it.
Craig is the founder of LifeGuider, he is dedicated to improving not only himself but also others in being more physically fit and mentally capable of handling life’s challenges. He is not your regular life coach, no fancy clothes or fast cars, just a regular “Ole Joe” who has experienced the ups and downs of life like everyone else.
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