Since most of us spend more than half of our time in communication as a listener, we should be experts at it by now.
If you are, though, you are the rare exception. Most people listen passively, planning what they are going to say next, or they listen partially, jumping on the first few words they hear and extrapolating the rest. It is no wonder that communication often lacks energy and leaves people feeling drained, bored, joyless, angry, depressed, or helpless. In many conversations there is little actual communication. Poor listening is usually at the root of the problem.
Dynamic listening is more than simply hearing. And it is easy to confuse the two. Think about this distinction in the realm of music. You probably hear music of some sort almost every day—as background to a TV show or in the supermarket. Even if you are not consciously aware of hearing it, this music creates a mood. Rarely will you attend to the lyrics or dance to the rhythm of this kind of music. Now contrast this with your behavior at a concert, a symphony, or a dance. In these circumstances, your body is turned in the direction of the band or orchestra. You may experience an emotional rush as you allow the music in. You may involve your body with it, starting to sway or hum along, or to clap in time. When the music ends, you applaud or stand up and shout. Now you are listening dynamically.
Imagine giving that kind of attention to another human being— involving yourself actively in what they are saying. That’s what it means to listen rather than merely to hear. Active listening forms the basis of strong interpersonal relationships. It encourages interaction with another, rather than the assumption of a passive role, like people usually take with doctors, teachers, and other experts. Active listening allows you to step inside the other person’s shoes and see, hear, and feel the world from their perspective. With that advantage, miracles can happen between you and others.
Good listeners are made, not born. They are made by their willingness to observe the volumes that are spoken between the lines in ordinary conversation. Good listeners, for instance, “hear” a clenched fist or a look in the eye as much as they hear someone’s words. Good listeners are patient and nonjudgmental. They acknowledge other people’s views without immediately trying to correct them or help them. They assume that the speaker is the expert about themselves, and become a witness to the speaker’s process of self-discovery. Good listeners aren’t satisfied with partial data and don’t presume to know what another person means. Good listeners ask questions to clarify meaning and paraphrase what they heard to be sure they understood what was said. Good listeners are an active presence. They look at you, smile, nod their head, or give other appropriate forms of nonverbal feedback. (Too much of this, however, can be a sign of trying to please without really listening.) A good listener can be a very good friend.
Barriers to Good Listening
The first step in any process of change is to become aware of what you are presently doing. You are probably not aware of the barriers you habitually put up to block good communication. Look over the list below and identify any barriers that you use.
Evaluating and judging. Are you so busy criticizing what the other person is saying that you don’t hear them? There is nothing wrong with using discrimination, but it is more helpful to defer judgment until you fully understand what the other person is talking about.
Interrupting. When you don’t allow the other person to complete a thought, you are not listening. Many people interrupt because they are impatient. If you find yourself losing the train of a conversation because the other is talking excessively, ask for a summary and then continue to listen.
Jumping to conclusions. It is easy to mentally fill in the details of what another person is saying and then to assume you have understood them. People often take everything they hear personally, which is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings that lead to breakdowns in relationships. You can remedy that tendency by checking out your assumptions first.
Selective listening. People tend to hear what they expect to hear, need to hear, or want to hear and block out the rest. For example, if you have been feeling a lack of confidence in yourself lately, you might hear everything that is said to you through a filter of “I’m no good.” Or you might tune out everything that is critical, unpleasant, or negative because it is too threatening to hear right now. Keep in mind that everybody uses some form of selective listening. Get to know your form of selectivity and observe your tendency to block listening with it.
Advising. You may think that you have to answer every question asked and solve every problem. Not true. The other person may simply be thinking aloud, asking rhetorical questions, or just looking for a supportive presence. In fact, as you share your advice, you may actually be disregarding what the other person is saying. Let others specifically ask for help or advice. Otherwise, just listen and be there. One valuable way to encourage people to solve their own problems is to ask how they would advise a friend with a similar problem.
Lack of attention. Do you let your mind wander frequently in conversations, giving in to other external noises and distractions or to your own daydreams or plans? Often it is helpful to be up front about it—admit your temporary lack of attention to the person speaking; explain that you are sleepy, anxious, or whatever. If boredom is the problem, though, remember that the more involved you become in the conversation, the less boring it may be. Ask questions. Ask for examples. Summarize what you hear the other person saying. If all else fails, tell the other person honestly that you need to leave or get back to what you were doing. Good listening need not be a matter of silent endurance. Good listening is an active process.
Toward Dynamic Listening
Consider which of the listening barriers cited above you practice. When do you most frequently use them? With whom? Why? Choose one listening block that you would like to chip away. Who would you like to practice better listening with? Under what circumstances?
Determine to watch yourself throughout your next interaction with that person, noticing how easily you fall into your habitual patterns of passivity or nonlistening and/or how well you implement your new active listening behavior. Make a tally sheet for yourself of how many times in that conversation you blocked communication, and how many times you broke through the block with active listening. Write about your experience to help clarify it for yourself.
Remember, you cannot change another person, but the quality of your relationship can be improved if you practice active listening.
Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, and Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. www.tenspeed.com
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #19.
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