“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”Ernest Hemingway
A study showed that 70% of our waking hours are spent in communication with others, in some form, with almost half of that time taken up in listening. Reading, talking and writing were way down on the list.
So given that we spend so much of our communication in listening to others, do we do it effectively?
In his book, People Skills, Robert Bolton claimed researchers estimated up to 75% of oral communication is either ignored, misunderstood or quickly forgotten. Furthermore, he maintains that the quality of our friendships and the cohesiveness of our family relationships depends largely on our ability to listen.
“That went in one ear and out the other.”
Learning to be an effective listener takes work. It’s not something that we are actively taught to do in our schooling, so how can we listen better?
Reflective Listening and Attending the Conversation
Are we always fully present and attending the conversation? Or thinking of the next thing to say? For instance, do we always follow the speaker in conversations and listen for the deeper meaning behind the words?
In true listening, we reach behind the words, see through them, to find the person who is being revealed.”Robert Bolton
Paraphrasing the essence or intent behind the words you hear, can assist in conveying that you have understood correctly, (or give the speaker the chance to otherwise clarify what they meant).
Summarizing the content of another person’s words may nurture a deeper level of trust between them. Trust encourages the other person to further open up and may build more satisfying relationships.
Use Questions Wisely
If we notice a change in the body language of others, we might see cues that they are bothered by something. For example, a child comes home from school looking sad and the reaction from others is sometimes, “Come on, cheer up!” An adult who is becoming agitated about a situation is told, “Calm down.”
This is usually the last thing they want to hear!
Instead of dispensing advice, which generally doesn’t work, asking open-ended questions may help folks who are feeling burdened divulge what is troubling them, especially if you give them a non-coercive invitation to talk.
What is the best way to do that?
Firstly describe the other’s body language – “You look as if something is bothering you.” Or: “You look troubled/sad.”
Secondly, invite them to talk:
- “I’ve got time if you would like to chat.”
- “Do you feel like talking?”
- “I am here if you want to talk about it.”
Be wary of leading the conversation by asking more than one question at a time. Most questions can be re-phrased as a statement. It is good to remember that questions should help the other clarify the problem, rather than provide information.
The beginning of wisdom is silence. The second stage is listening.Hebrew Sage
Silences in Conversations
Don’t be put off by pauses or silences as these momemts may allow the other person time to think of their answer or expand on what they want to say, at their own pace. During a pause in the conversation, you can still be fully present in the conversation by:
- Using eye contact
- Observing the other person’s gestures, facial expression during pauses
- Adopting open encouraging, non verbal body posture and language
- Keeping distractions such as checking the phone notifications, loud background etc music, TV to a minimum.
Focus on the Feelings and Emotions
Feelings are often triggered by specific events.
Society’s norms implicitly teach us to suppress our feelings with the undesired result that they might bubble up and overflow. If everyone acted on impulse and expressed feelings spontaneously, society would completely disrupt. So we have a balancing act between blocking our sensitivity to emotions and freely expressing them. Reflecting emotions and feelings back to the speaker is a way of doing that while respecting the speaker’s privacy.
I asked my daughter how her date went last night. “Okay.” was her subdued response. She wasn’t ready to talk about it, and was letting me know not to probe further. If I had not noticed her tone of voice, it could have meant it was just an average date. Her tone and body language was the key to deciphering the true meaning behind the words. Letting her know I was available, if she wanted to talk, gave her the chance to raise the subject when she was ready.
In developing empathy and reflecting the emotions of others, we can ask ourselves – if you were having that experience, how would we be feeling? Then we can put together the feeling, or emotion, and the fact with a familiar formula often used by professionals:
“You feel/are ..(insert the emotion or feeling word )….. since/because….(insert the trigger event or content associated with the feeling).
Bob: “My supervisor keeps asking questions about my personal life. I wish he’d mind his own business.
Marie: “It sounds like you are feeling pretty annoyed because he won’t respect your privacy.”
Something Further to Ponder
Have you used these techniques to improve conversations and support friends or colleagues? If so, how did they respond?
Are there other ways to develop better listening skills?