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Effective Listening

"We all want to speak and be heard. There is nothing more discouraging than pouring out your heart and finding your listener doodling, sleeping, or even worse…rehearsing their “that’s nothing compared to my story” routine."

Poor Listening Habits

Most people spend more time listening than they spend on any other communication activity, yet a large percentage of people never learn to listen well. One reason is that they develop poor listening habits that continue with them throughout life. The following is a list of poor listening habits:

  • Not paying attention – Listeners may allow themselves to be distracted or to think of something else.
  • Pseudolistening – Often, people who are thinking about something else deliberately try to look as though they are listening.
  • Listening but not hearing – Sometimes a person listens only to facts or details or to the way in which they are presented and misses the real meaning of the communication.
  • Rehearsing – Some people listen until they want to say something; then they stop listening, start rehearsing what they will say, and wait or an opportunity to respond.
  • Interrupting – the listener does not wait until the complete meaning can be determined, but interrupts so forcefully that the speaker stops in mid-sentence.
  • Hearing what is expected – People frequently think that they heard speakers say what they expected them to say. Alternatively, they refuse to hear what they do not want to hear.
  • Feeling defensive – The listeners assume that they know the speaker’s intention or why something was said, or for various other reasons, they expect to be attacked.
  • Listening for a point of disagreement – Some listeners seem to wait for the chance to attack someone. They listen intently for points on which they can disagree.

Effective Listening

One way people can improve their listening is to identify their own poor listening habits and make an effort to change them. If the listeners pay special attention to the circumstances that seem to invite such behavior, they can consciously attempt to change their habits. For example, if a person realizes that he or she is pseudolistening to another, the listener can ask the speaker to repeat their last statement(s). The listener can say “I’m so sorry; my mind wandered a bit”. The more people become conscious of their listening behaviors, the more likely they are to change their poor listening habits.

Besides ridding themselves of bad listening habits, people need to acquire positive listening habits. Listed below are a few behaviors that lead to effective listening:

  • Paying attention – If people really want to be good listeners, they pay attention to the speakers. When speakers are dull, a listener sometimes must use great effort to keep from being distracted by other things.It is important not only to focus on the speaker, but to use non-verbal cues (such as eye contact, head nods, and smiles) to let the speakers know that they are being heard.

  • Listening for the whole message – This includes looking for meaning and consistency or congruence in both the verbal and non-verbal messages and listening for ideas, feelings and intentions as well as facts. It also includes hearing things that are unpleasant or unwelcome

  • Hearing before evaluating – Listening to what someone says without drawing premature a conclusion is a valuable aid to listening. By questioning the speaker in a non accusing manner, rather than giving advice or judgment, a listener often can discover exactly what the speaker has in mind- which many times is quite different from what the listener had assumed.

  • Paraphrasing what was heard – If the listener non-judgmentally paraphrases the words of the speaker and asks if that is what was meant, many misunderstandings and misinterpretations can be avoided.

As you can see from the above, listening is not as automatic as you might think. Here are additional suggestions from another source that can make you a good listener.

Skills of a Good Listener 

  • Be interested and show it – Genuine concern and a lively curiosity encourages others to speak freely. Interest also sharpens your attention and builds on itself.
  • Tune into the other person – Try to understand his or her viewpoint, assumptions, needs and systems of beliefs.
  • Hold your fire – Avoid jumping to conclusions. Hear the speaker out. Plan your response only after you are certain that you’ve gotten the whole message.
  • Look for the main ideas – Avoid being distracted by details. Focus on the key issue. You may have to dig hard to find it.
  • Watch for feelings – Often people talk to “get something off their chests.” Feelings, not facts, may be the main message.
  • Monitor your own feelings and point of view – Each of us listens differently. Our convictions and emotions filter—even distort—what we hear. Be aware of your own attitudes, prejudices, beliefs and your emotional reaction to the message.
  • Notice non-verbal language – A shrug, a smile, a nervous laugh, gestures, facial expressions and body positions speak volumes. Start to read them.
  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt – We often enter conversations with our minds already made up, at least partially, on the basis of past experience. Prejudgments can shut out new messages.
  • Work at listening – Hearing is passive. Our nervous system does the work. Listening is active. It takes mental effort and attention.
  • Get feedback – Make certain you’re really listening. Ask a question. Confirm with the speaker what he/she actually said.

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