Do you interrupt? How much do you talk? A lot? Not enough? Do you need to have the last word? How well do you listen?
Most of us think we are good listeners. We assume listening comes naturally. However, listening is just as complicated as reading, writing and speaking. Listening requires mental and physical activity. We spend 80 percent of each day listening. Listening is our most frequently used communication skill, yet we often feel that it requires no effort on our part.
Research shows that 40 percent of your professional salary is earned by listening. This percentage increases as you climb the professional ladder. Eighty percent of a CEO’s salary is earned through listening. Sperry Rand targeted listening as the communication skill it most wants its employees to improve. Sperry spends millions on effective listening training. Management recognizes that their employees’ listening skills are not as effective as they could be, even though listening consumes a major portion of the workday.
Skilled listening allows you to step into the other person’s shoes and respond appropriately. An appropriate response restates the speaker’s feelings and content in a way that demonstrates acceptance and understanding—that reflects what you heard the speaker say. A useful formula for reflecting is this: “You feel (insert the word or feeling) because (insert the event or other content that is associated with the feeling).”
Reflective listening only allows you to focus on the central points of the issue, and keeps the speaker focused.
Reflective listening encourages the other person to disclose his feelings, thereby helping him understand his emotions and move toward a solution to the problem.
As you listen, focus on these areas:1. Listen for the prevailing emotion. Be aware of the emotional elements that drive the speaker and his perceptions. Pay attention to how feelings are expressed in terms of the actual words used as well as by the speaker’s nonverbal communication: tone, emphasis and body language. 2. Put yourself in the speakers shoes. See the issue from his standpoint. Take into consideration all you know about this person’s business and personal life. Is he confronting several deadlines? Is he experiencing personal stress? This insight will give you a clearer understanding of the speaker’s feelings.
Some complain that reflective listening is too structured. When you learn to use it properly, you forget the formula, and reflection becomes natural. Others are skeptical about the feelings that arise when they first begin reflective listening. Awkward and insincere feelings turn into empathy as you practice these skills.
Reflective listening provides a mechanism that draws the other person out. You can do this in several ways:1. Indicate your interest in the person and what he is saying. This invites him to talk. 2. Don’t interrupt, offer an opinion or otherwise prevent the speaker from continuing. Even if the speaker pauses, don’t speak. Let him resume the conversation. 3. Involve your whole body. Maintain good eye contact. Nod when the person makes a point. 4. Make listening sounds like, “Hmmm,” “Really,” “That’s interesting,” “What do you think about that?” This lets the speaker know you are paying attention.
Listening involves giving physical attention to the speaker. Listening with your whole body shows your interest in what is being said. Incline your body toward the speaker to communicate more energy and interest. Face the speaker squarely—your right shoulder to his left shoulder—to communicate your involvement in the discussion. When people say, “He gave me the cold shoulder,” they often mean that indifference or rejection was communicated.
To avoid giving someone a cold shoulder, face him squarely at eye level. Your eye contact communicates interest and a desire to listen. Keep your arms and legs uncrossed. Tightly crossed arms or legs communicate defensiveness and closed mindedness. Position yourself at an appropriate distance. If you are too distant or too close, the speaker will feel anxiety. About three feet is a comfortable distance for conversation.
Avoid making distracting motions and gestures, but don’t sit too rigidly either. Move your body in response to the speaker. The skilled listener avoids environmental distractions. Turn off the television or stereo. Close the door. In the workplace, have your phone calls held and instruct visitors to wait. Remove the physical barriers. Don’t isolate yourself on the opposite side of an executive desk. This only sets up psychological distance and impedes good communication.
Most listeners talk too much. Learn the art of silent responsiveness. A good listener strikes an effective balance of reflective paraphrasing and silent responsiveness. Learning to read body language is an important skill for effective listening because much of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. People sometimes try to conceal their feelings by controlling their nonverbal communication. This usually is not effective. Most often, emotions leak out despite efforts to regulate nonverbal expression. Here are some guidelines to help you read body language.• Focus attention on: facial expressions, posture, gestures and actions. • Read nonverbals in context of the conversation. • Note discrepancies between what people say and how they act. For example, if they say they are happy, do they look and act happy? • Be aware of your feelings and physical reactions.
Body language is sometimes very clear. Other times, it is difficult to determine. When the listener appropriately reflects his understanding of the other person’s body language, communication improves significantly.
Whatever your business or profession, the ability to listen effectively is critical to success. However, improving listening skills is not easy. A lifetime full of poor listening habits is difficult to undo. But with knowledge and practice, you can improve your listening skills. While listening is often a delight, it is also demanding. Listening is primary to all other forms of communication. You must listen in order to learn to speak, read and write. Listening is not a passive activity. Good listening skills are at the heart of effective and meaningful communication.