Generally when people communicate it is a two way conversation – one talking and the other listening. Certainly the talking part is easier to acknowledge and identify, but listening is a more difficult process. To have an effective conversation takes active listening skills, which can be very difficult.
When you see two people talking at the same time, you know that they are not listening to each other. Listening is half of a successful conversation – you take turns talking and you take turns listening. This is what makes great communication.
In any relationship, it is important to create a comfortable communication environment. We can accomplish this using the Theory of Reciprocity. The Theory of Reciprocity is a powerful weapon of influence as well. Since many of our communication intentions are to influence someone or something, reciprocation can help accomplish our goal when communicating.
The Rule of Reciprocation says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a person listens to you, by virtue of the reciprocity rule, you will feel obligated to listen to them.
Habit 5 of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is: Seek first to understand then to be understood. In Habit 5, Covey seeks to change the way we interact with people by changing the way we listen to them. He stresses that we need to be non-judgmental and not make assumptions. In order to reach a win/win situation and be able to influence people and outcomes, we need to understand the other person first.
One of the most common mistakes we can make is to confuse “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is merely noting that someone is speaking. Listening is more difficult, and it can take considerable effort to constantly pay attention, interpret and remember what was heard. Hearing is passive; listening is active. We must strive to understand the other person, or we can’t help or influence the situation because we won’t be able to see the world through their eyes. Active listening is about hearing the words and identifying feelings with the words.
Baylor University issued a paper that states that the human brain is capable of handling a speaking rate six times that of the average speaker. Thus the listener must focus on the speaker by tuning out distractions.
The paper offers seven suggestions to improve active listening skills.
- Make eye contact: This will help us focus and reduce the chance of distraction.
- Exhibit affirmative nods and appropriate facial expressions: The effective speaker shows signs of being interested. Our non-verbal expressions can convey active listening.
- Avoid distracting actions or gestures: Don’t look away from the speaker at other people, play with pens, shuffle papers or the like. This makes the speaker feel the listener is not interested in what is being said.
- Ask questions: Questions help ensure clarification of what is being said.
- Paraphrase: This technique allows the listener to verify that the message was received correctly.
- Avoid interrupting the speaker: Allow the speaker to complete his or her thoughts before responding, and do not anticipate what he/she will say.
- Don’t talk too much: An active listener recognizes that it is impossible to talk and listen acutely at the same time.
As Steven Covey so clearly states, empathic listening is what we can aim for to having meaningful conversations. It gives the other person an emotional boost. Empathic listening isn’t about agreeing with the other person, it is about understanding them emotionally, behaviorally, physically and intellectually.
Listening is a learnable skill. Yet it is not typically taught along with other communication skills. Listening is a very important and useful method of communication. We have to be aware of how we listen and work hard at being effective at it.