Do You Want To Sharpen Your Listening Skills?

People have a need to be listened to because of an increased sense of isolation at home and at work. Listening to someone shows that you care for that person. When we do not listen, we are showing that we really do not care about the person who is talking.

Listening creates connection, caring, a sense of community or belonging and can be a catharsis for the speaker. It is one of the most important aspects of a helping relationship. Also, listening is good for your health. It can lower blood pressure and lead to increased relaxation for the listener.

Listening is an art that can be mastered with some understanding of what is required and practice.

First of all, it is an active experience which requires involvement and commitment. While listening may appear passive, it is important to remember that during listening, the inside of your brain is extremely active. To be a good listener, you have to want to listen. It means doing what needs to be done rather than what you might sometimes like to do.

Second, the good listener needs to have patience. If you are in a hurry and are anxious to get the situation “solved” or “fixed,” chances are that you will do a poor job of listening and a poor job of caring. Part of being patient also means not filling every silence during the conversation. Silences are usually not as long as they seem. You do not have to keep the conversation going.

Third, the physical setting is important when you are listening to someone. Listening can happen in many places as long as there are no major distractions. The goal is to give your full attention so that the person is able to comfortably share concerns with you.

It also helps if you and the person you are listening to feel reasonably comfortable and relaxed. Sometimes this may mean you need to plan ahead to insure the setting is as distraction-free as possible and interruptions are minimized. If distractions are excessive, you have two options: end the session with a plan to meet later, or continue, trying to do the best that you can.

Now that the stage is set for listening, the following points describe how to listen:

• Be attentive; use your eyes to watch for nonverbal cues. Keep your ears keen and you heart open.

• Look at the person (eye contact) and look alert.

• Do not drum or tap your fingers, play with a pencil or other objects, glance or stare at your watch or yawn deeply.

• Acknowledge what is being said by paraphrasing or reflecting what the person is saying and feeling. This shows understanding and allows him or her to correct anything that my have been misunderstood. Also, it encourages the person to expand on what was being said.

• Make sure your tone of voice and facial expression communicate acceptance which demonstrates you are committed to helping.

• Ask questions that are open-ended (how, what, when, where). Check out what he or she hears, thinks, feels, wants, and plans to do. Do not ask too many questions. Spend most of your time listening. Stay away from “why” questions which make people feel defensive.

• Listen for feelings, thoughts or ideas, attitudes about the situation, opinions about what can be done, body language, recurring themes or contradictions.

• Avoid quick conclusions and trying to figure out solutions for the problem.

Being a good listener is especially important when someone has problems to talk about. You might think of him or her as being stuck in a mud hole. There are at least three approaches to listening to someone who is stuck:

1. Sympathy – If you are sympathetic, you might have a feeling of concern without becoming involved. It is feeling sorry for the person in the mud hole as you stand off to the side. Maybe you send supplies. Although concerned, you remain apart. A close meaningful relationship is not established. Sometimes this is appropriate and all you can offer.

2. Over-identification – If you are over-identifying with the person who has the problem, you are taking on the feelings and characteristics of that person to the point that the problem becomes yours. It involves jumping into the mud hole and possibly getting as mired in the difficulty as the person you are listening to. When this occurs, you can lose yourself in the relationship. You are no longer able to be objective.

3. Empathy – If you are showing empathy for the person in the mud hole, you are feeling the problem as if it is yours without taking it on yourself. It does not mean you agree with everything the person is thinking or feeling but that you are able to see things from his or her perspective. You keep your own reality while understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings and concerns. You get involved while maintaining control of yourself. It is an important aspect of Emotional Intelligence and critical for building trust.

Sharpening listening skills is an active process that puts care into action. It is a skill that requires practice. We listen to show caring, to learn new information, and to understand rather than force conformity. Attentive listeners observe, acknowledge, encourage, check out, interpret and sometimes agree to disagree.

Listening has many rewards. As you practice sharpening your listening skills, notice how it helps you gain trust and build closer relationships both at home and in your work.

Copyright (c) 2007 Maurine Patten