Hello, it’s Me. Are You Really Listening?

Hello, it’s me. Are you really listening to what I have to say? How many times have your really wanted to say this to the person sitting across from you. As you are telling them about your situation or problem, suddenly it is all about them; all you hear is their experience of the situation or their opinions. When all you really want them to do is just listen to you!

Many of us don’t know when and how to “just listen.” Yet listening is probably one of the most important skills you can have. Your ability to listen well will have a positive impact on your career success, and on the quality of your relationships – both personal and professional.

All that said the ability to really listen is not an easy task. Active listening involves a restatement of either the message or the feelings of the speaker without giving advice, without analyzing, without probing to the satisfaction of the speaker. What makes it so hard is having to suspend judgment when listening to the other person especially if you are someone who likes to provide your opinion or suffers from going into your “own autobiography.”

Active listening is different from hearing, which refers to the sounds that you hear. Listening requires focus. It means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body.  In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages.  Active listening skills include:

  • Suspend judgement. Opinions are kept invisible.
  • Paraphrasing. To show you are listening, repeat every so often what you think the person said — not by parroting, but by paraphrasing what you heard in your own words. For example, “Let’s see if I’m clear about this. . .” “It sounds like…” Paraphrasing is used to either test your understanding of the message or demonstrate that you have been listening.
  • Summarizing. Bring together the facts and pieces of the problem to check understanding — for example, “So what you want us to do is . . .” Or, “Is that it?” The skill of summarizing is lacking in most meetings. How often have you left a meeting not remembering what was agreed to. Summarizing before moving to the next agenda item or at the end of a meeting is critical.
  • Reflection of feelings. Reflect the speaker’s words in terms of feelings — for example, “This seems really important to you. . .” “It sounds like you are really frustrated by this…”
  • Attending skills. Provide eye contact, maintain open body posture, use brief, positive prompts to keep the conversation going and show you are listening — for example, “umm-hmmm,” “Oh?” “I understand,” “Then?” “And?”

Now if you were to apply active listening to every conversation you have you will probably drive the people around you crazy. There are three reasons that you would want to put on your active listening “hat”:

  1. The information is important. If your boss or client is providing you with key information about an important project or situation you need to start listening actively.
  2. The relationship is important. When your partner or client comes to you with something that is important to him or her it is time to just listen.
  3. There is conflict. Conflict can be defined as a disagreement, misunderstanding or controversy between one or more people. When conflict occurs, you need to “stop, look, and listen” if you are going to have any chance of resolving it.

There are times when we need to practice empathic listening, which involves attempting to understand the feelings and emotions of the speaker; to put yourself into the speaker’s shoes and share their thoughts. It is empathy that connects us with others, that really shows people that we care.

Remember that there is a reason why “we were given two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak (Epictetus).”

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