Yes, I think so, you say to yourself. If you asked me that question a few years ago, that would have been my answer, too. Why? Well, because I have very good hearing. I’m intelligent, well-educated, polite and attentive when someone who is speaking to me. Listening is natural and normal. Isn’t it?
No, it’s not, according to Dianne Schilling, a San Diego-based writer, editor and instructional designer who specializes in the development of education publications and customized training programs for business and industry. In her article titled “Be an Effective Listener”, Ms. Schilling points out that listening is not automatic. “Like any other skill, competency in listening is achieved through learning and practice,” she writes. And one of the reasons we listen poorly is that we never learned to listen well. We learned “whatever passed for listening in (y)our environment; distracted half-attention, constant interruptions, multi-layered, high-volume, talkfest free-for-alls with little listening at all.”
How can you gauge whether or not you are a good listener? Your friend is telling you something and you’re nodding and saying “mm hm” and “yeah, I know”. You are providing feedback; clues, that indicate you are paying attention. It’s something you probably learned as a child. But are you really listening?
I know myself and, I must confess, I am rarely a good listener. All too often, my mind wanders, or I am focused on formulating a response to something I heard – even though the speaker is still talking. It’s natural. Pointing out what should be obvious, but often is not, Ms. Schilling writes that “Good listening requires the temporary suspension of all unrelated thoughts – a blank canvas. In order to become an effective listener, you have to learn to manage what goes on in your own mind.”
There’s a lot of competition for our attention, isn’t there? Technology – friend or foe or both? Information overload is a common contemporary condition. We are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily. Many are processed automatically, by the amazingly complex system of our five senses. But our brain is forced to receive, analyze, respond to and/or file huge amounts of data.
Other obstacles to good listening are more personal, unique to the listener. We all have our own preferences and prejudices. Cultural or linguistic differences can keep us from fully understanding what is being said. And then there’s the noisy clutter around us, or the internal clutter of preoccupation. Or even boredom.
The good news is that you and I can learn to listen well. Here are 10 tips to effective listening from Dianne Schilling:
- Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
- Be attentive yet relaxed.
- Keep an open mind.
- Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
- Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions”.
- Wait for the speaker to pause and ask clarifying questions.
- Ask questions only to ensure understanding of something that has been said (avoid questions that disrupt the speaker’s train of thought).
- Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.
- Give the speaker regular feedback, e.g., summarize, reflect feelings, or simply say “uh huh.”
- Pay attention to what isn’t said – to feelings, facial expressions, gestures, posture and other nonverbal cues.
Listening is an important skill – not only in personal relationships but in all relationships. Developing good listening skills will help us – at work and at home. We will become adept at filtering what we hear and see, better able to keep what’s important – and file or discard the rest.
After all, we have two ears and only one mouth.