Effective Listening: Listen Up: Remove the Barriers; Hear the Words…

The second in a four-part series on effective listening.
By Kellie Fowler

In the last issue of the Mind Tools newsletter, we discussed something that some might believe to be obvious: That listening well is one of life's great challenges.

We saw how important it is possess and project a true desire to hear the messages that other people are sending us, to listen carefully, and to take the time to clearly reiterate the message before walking away. And we saw the importance of active listening, rather than the combative or passive approaches to listening which lie behind much failed communication.

Sure, this may sound like hard work, but remember that listening, really listening with our whole being, is a skill and one of the most important compliments we can give another human being.

To do this, you should know that there are different levels of communication. Now, you should also know that the different types of interaction or the levels of communication might also contribute to the level of difficulty or misunderstanding, or impede the true hearing of any message.

Three different types or levels of communication are:

  1. Facts
  2. Thoughts/Beliefs
  3. Feelings/Emotions

As listeners, we tend to “tune-in” to the level we think is most important. However, we may have no idea what the speaker thinks is most important, and this can create misperceptions or crossed wires, which yield the most undesirable results.

Sure, the purpose of the conversation and even the relationship you have with the speaker will influence what levels are used for the interaction. Even so, these will still vary. To best understand this, consider the differences in these verbal communications:

  • You are lost and ask a gas station attendant for directions.
  • Your spouse or loved one is being affectionate and playful.
  • Your boss is reprimanding you for a costly mistake you made.
  • Your child falls down and is injured and comes running to you hurting and crying for your help.

Considering these, it is easier to see that if you do not hear and address the appropriate elements of the communication, the situation can quickly worsen: A factual response to your child’s pain would seem cold and uncaring. And a belief-oriented response to the gas station attendant would probably be seen as peculiar!

Thus, it is important to consider all that goes into the message you are hearing, as well as the words themselves.

While seemingly elementary, there are quick and easy steps you can take to ensure that you hear the words, factor in the situation and even consider the sender’s motivation and desirable outcome. These include:

  • First and foremost, stop talking! It is difficult to listen and speak at the same time.
  • Put the other person at ease. Give them space and time and "permission" to speak their piece. How we look at them, how we stand or sit, makes a huge difference: Relax, and let them relax as well.
  • Show the other person that you want to hear them. Look at them. Nod when you can agree, ask them to explain further if you don't understand. Listen to understand them and their words, rather than just for your turn.
  • Remove distractions. Good listening means being willing to turn off the TV, close a door, stop returning emails or reading your mail. Give the speaker your full attention, and let them know they are getting your full attention.
  • Empathize with the other person. Especially if they are telling you something personal or painful, or something you intensely disagree with, take a moment to stand in their shoes, to look at the situation from their point of view.
  • Be patient. Some people take longer to find the right word, to make a point or clarify an issue. Give the speaker time to get it all out before you jump in with your reply.
  • Watch your own emotions. If what they are saying creates an emotional response in you, be extra careful to listen carefully, with attention to the intent and full meaning of their words. When we are angry, frightened or upset, we often miss critical parts of what is being said to us.
  • Be very slow to disagree, criticize or argue. Even if you disagree, let them have their point of view. If you respond in a way that makes the other person defensive, even if you "win" the argument, you may lose something far more valuable!
  • Ask lots of questions. Ask the speaker to clarify, to say more, give an example, or explain further. It will help them speak more precisely and it will help you hear and understand them more accurately.
  • STOP TALKING! This is both the first and the last point, because all other tools depend on it. Nature gave us two ears and only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that we should listen twice as much as we talk.

Becoming an effective listener is not a lengthy or particularly challenging process. Even poor listening habits can be easily changed and in the final two articles in this four-part series on listening, we provide proven tips and techniques that you can use to become a more effective listener. More in our next issue!

Reproduced from the Mind Tools Newsletter.  ã http://www.mindtools.com  To subscribe to the newsletter, send a blank email to: join-mindtools@atomic.sparklist.com.