Are you really listening?


Are you really listening?

Looking for a way to really get that pressing, important point across? It may surprise you to know that the answer lies in your ability to listen.

Effective listening is a tough skill to learn.

It’s hard to tell the difference between passive listening and effective listening. It’s easy to look like you are really listening. And it’s easy to lull yourself into thinking you are really listening when you are actually tuning out or formulating what to say next.

Until recently this powerful communication technique was nearly absent from communication books and workshops. The good news is that today we have some great resources on effective listening: Power Listening by Bernard Ferrari, The Pause Principle by Kevin Cashman, Just Listen by Mark Goulston and The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample are a few I highly recommend.

Your best first step toward better listening is to identify the things that contribute to poor listening:

Negative emotional states and attitudes. These include pre-existing negative emotions as well as negative emotions generated by the subject being discussed, the person delivering the message or the way in which the message is delivered. Negativity can easily hijack your thoughts and sabotage your efforts to listen effectively.

Selective listening. Too often we prune out the logical or emotional components that are less appealing to us in a message. To truly understand what’s being said, you need to hear the whole package.

Lousy retention. As a general rule, we are not efficient listeners and don’t retain much of what we hear. Some studies indicate we retain as much as 50 per cent of what we hear but I think that’s optimistic. In my coaching practice I keep a more realistic 10 per cent retention factor in mind.

Tuning out. Your ability to think is much more efficient than your ability to listen. The average person speaks at a rate of 125 words per minute and thinks at a rate of 400 words per minute. That’s a significant gap rich in extra mental capacity — and a tempting trap that can enable you to tune out and tend to other distractions. This is particularly true if the message doesn’t naturally capture your interest or if you are distracted by your own thoughts or outside interferences like music or cell phones.

Lack of commitment. Without a practical plan to incorporate what you hear into your everyday activities, your retention can drop off by as much as 50 per cent. If you retain 10 per cent of what you hear but don’t act on it you’ll be left with only 5 per cent of what you heard.

It’s hard. Think back to a time when you listened intently for an extended period of time. Were you exhausted afterward — both mentally and physically? You bet. Effective listening is hard work.

Identifying your barriers to effective listening is an important step, but it’s only a first step. From there, you need to develop the know-how to listen effectively in any circumstance:

Understand that information is power. Dale Carnegie’s famous nine steps to a favourable outcome in an argument include getting the other person to vent, which gives you valuable information. Keep this in mind particularly if you are challenged by negativity — make a conscious effort to get past your negative mindset and focus on the information in the message.

Summarize. Another way to improve yourself as a listener is to take advantage of short pauses in the conversation to make mental summaries of what you’ve heard. These periodic summaries reinforce learning tremendously.

Anticipate. Making an effort to predict what you think the speaker is going to say next will help you to stay on task. If you anticipate correctly, your learning will be reinforced. If you anticipate incorrectly, this will engage your thinking and intensify your attention.

Make a plan. Retain the information people give you by putting it into an action plan. As soon as possible after hearing a message, figure out a way to incorporate that message into your everyday activities.

Stay present. Focus as though there is nowhere else you would rather be. Try to minimize the distractions around you and in your head and make a concerted effort to remain engaged. Remind yourself to be attentive by regularly checking your tendency to tune out. Carry a notebook to write down distracting thoughts or do what I do when I need to remind myself to be in the moment: I pull myself back by thinking “right here, right now.”

Remember that effective listening is perceived as a compliment. It is a respectful gesture that lets people know you value and have an interest in what they are saying. They will be more inspired to share their thoughts, and they’ll be more motivated to listen to and understand you.

The value of effective listening simply cannot be overstated. Mastering the art of effective listening is one of the most important prerequisites for mastering the art of communication.

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