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Active Listening: The most important communication skill

active listening

Have you ever given directions or instructions to someone and then walked away expecting to get what you expected, only to be disappointed that the person did not follow those instructions as you intended? I bet this has happened to most of you at one time or an other.

Why does this happen?

It happens because we “assume” when we tell someone something that they heard it, processed it as we wanted and therefore will act as we expect. Sadly, unless you are a mind reader, you can never be sure your intended message was in fact heard, processed as desired and therefore the resultant action will be what you expect.

The only way that will actually occur is if we practice Active Listening and get some concrete feedback from the listener, as to what they heard and what they will do with that information.

Listening is the most important communication skill and despite the fact that many people think they are good at it, often they are not.

Active listening requires a great deal of focus and concentration, which is truly difficult for most human beings for more than about 15 or 20 minutes and in many cases it lasts for only a few minutes.

The reason for that is this: your brain processes data at about 800 words per minute, whereas most people speak at only about 150 words per minute… much too slowly to keep a brain engaged. As a result, we often “zone out” or “wool gather” and then realize that we have not heard a word the person speaking has said for the past 10 or 15 minutes. That is often when the “assuming” begins… we assume that we know what they were going to say as we have heard it before. This assumption can get us into a lot of trouble, as it may not be what was offered and we then are starting out with the wrong idea from the get go.

Sometimes the person you are speaking with may be tired, hungry, not feeling well, too hot or too cold… all those personal issues will override your conversation and they will be unlikely to “hear” what you have to say.

speakingOccasionally we may choose a location to have a conversation is has an inordinate amount of outside traffic noise, business machine noises, other conversations or people coming in and out of the room. All these extraneous interferences can greatly prevent a person from being able to focus on the conversation at hand, so again important parts of it may be missed. In addition this location could also be too hot, or too cold, or have poor lighting…again all factors that could impact negatively on the listener’s ability to stay focused on the exchange.

In certain situations a person may opt to use language that is not understood by the listener. For example, I was a dental hygienist for many years and if I was explaining a dental issue to a patient and used “dentalese” it would be unlikely that they would understand what I was trying to tell them. In fact that sort of terminology is fine to be used when speaking with other dental professionals but might as well be “martian” when speaking to lay people. In addition, when you ask the patient if they understood you, they, of course, do not want you to think they are stupid so most will say, “Sure.” In the meantime they will leave the office with no clear idea of what you were trying to explain to them about their treatment options or their dental health. This is true of any technical or professional terminology.

Then there is the situation where a person comes to a meeting or even a lecture with a per-conceived idea of what is going to be said. In this case, they block the message before it is even delivered so will miss anything new or important that they did not expect.

All these interferences are methods employed by listeners that a speaker needs to be aware of if they are going to be successful in getting their intended message across to the listener. If we understand what those possible interferences are, we can implement strategies to overcome them… by checking with the listener to be sure they did in fact hear what we intended.

The other side of the conversation is just as important… as the listener, you must actually stop talking and focus. Sometimes that may be hard to do, however one cannot listen and talk at the same time. So if you are going to be a respectful listener, you must refrain from interrupting the speaker with advice (you should talk to “Mary” about that) or asking advice questions (when are you going to do____, or why don’t you do____). In addition, often when someone is telling us something it can trigger memories or situations from our past, and it may seem appropriate to jump in and tell a “related story”. In truth the speaker is not interested in your story; they are consumed by their current issue and truly just want a sounding board. Every time you interrupt with a comment you derail their trend of thought and show that you are not really interested or fully listening to them. This is disrespectful and rather rude.

As you can see, listening is not easy. In fact, hearing is an ability, listening is an art which requires your ears, your heart, and your mind. In this way you will take in both the verbal and non-verbal parts of the message as well as completely focusing on the exchange.

So if you truly want to be a good, active listener you need to first stop talking, be patient, wait until the person has said what they wish before jumping in to “help.” Stay engaged, encourage them to say all they wish to impart and then show them how well you listened by summarizing back the key issues they shared with you. At that point you can also ask questions for further clarification as necessary and even do some problem solving together if that is appropriate.

When we truly listen, we can establish trust, respect and rapport with the speaker. In this way we can begin to build a meaningful, long lasting relationship which will be beneficial to both parties in either a personal or business realm.

I challenge you to practice this most important communication skill and reap the rewards it will offer you in all aspects of your life. It is the basis for clear, impactful and influential communication!

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