Communication is at the heart of everything we do each day, whether at home, work or play. It involves talking and listening – actively listening. Unfortunately, in today’s technology-driven, fast-paced world, studies suggest many of us are spending less and less time to really listening to one another. In essence our messages are going in one ear and out the other.
The ramifications of not actively listening to others are aplenty. By not being an active listener, you can be portrayed as disrespectful or lacking appreciation, understanding or empathy. It even could cost you your job.
“We were given two ears but only one mouth,
because listening is twice as hard as talking.”
-Epictetus (AD 55 – c. 135)
As an active listener, it’s important to try to understand the message from the speaker’s point of view. It includes letting the speaker know you’re listening and you’ve understood what was said. Head nodding, smiles and eye contact are indications you’re tuned in.
Mind you, this is not the same as hearing, which is a physical process where sound enters the eardrum and messages are passed to the brain. Rather, active listening can be described as an attitude that leads to listening for shared understanding. When we make a decision to actively listen, we listen for the content (the message) of what’s being said as well as the attitude behind what’s being said. Is the speaker happy, angry, excited, sad…or something else entirely?
Active listening encompasses the best of communication: hearing and understanding what’s really being said, processing the information and responding in order to clarify and elicit more information.
Active listening is the foundation of effective communication. It solves problems and resolves conflicts. It builds relationships and careers.
Develop and practice these six tips to fine-tune your listening skills:
- Make a Decision to Listen: Close your mind to clutter and noise, put away your smart phone and look at the person speaking with you. Give them your undivided attention.
- Don’t Interrupt: Make it a habit to let them finish what they’re saying. Respect they have thoughts they’re processing and speaking about and wait to ask questions or make comments until they’ve finished.
- Use Positive Body Language: The occasional nod, smile or hand/arm gesture shows you’re listening and engaging in the conversation. Avoid folding your arms across your chest as this may reflect defensiveness or disinterest.
- Maintain Eye Contact: Keep your eyes focused on the speaker and your ears tuned to their voice. Don’t get distracted and let your eyes wander.
- Put Yourself in the Speaker’s Shoes: Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. If the person with whom you’re talking to expresses sadness, anxiety or happiness, you, too, should convey the same feelings in your body language and words. This not only conveys you’re a good listener but also shows respect and empathy.
- Ask Questions throughout the Conversation: Asking questions show you’re engaged and interested in what they have to say. Your ability to summarize and paraphrase will also demonstrate you hear them loud and clear. What’s more, asking questions allows you to fully understand the message.