Are you Really Listening?

When we were children we learned to listen to our parents and teachers because we knew we would be in trouble if we did not listen. But somewhere along the way, perhaps as the number of distractions in our lives increased, many of us are not paying attention as well as we should. With technology replacing many face-to-face conversations and people opting for email over phone discussions, our true ability to listen is deteriorating. This is not just a workplace issue, either. In my work as a Communications consultant in personal and organisational development, I have realised that we don’t seem to take as much time to listen to our family or friends in the same way as we used to. In this very fast-paced world where we rarely take breaks from information overload, listening is something that needs to be worked on. As with any skill, if we don’t work at it, we lose it.

Many successful leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills. Richard Branson frequently quotes listening as one of the main factors behind the success of Virgin. Effective listening is a skill that underpins all positive human relationships, a reason we need to develop our listening skills – they are the building blocks of success. Listening is so important that many top employers provide listening skills training for their employees. This is not surprising when you consider that good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity with fewer mistakes, increased sharing of information that in turn can lead to more creative and innovative work.

We listen to obtain information, to understand, for enjoyment and to learn amongst many other reasons. Given all this listening we do; you would think we’d be good at it! In fact, most of us are not, and research suggests that we remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process – it is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively messages can be easily misunderstood – communication breaks down and the sender of the message can easily become frustrated or irritated. The way to become a better listener is to practice “active listening.” This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent. Good listening skills have tremendous benefits in our personal lives, including a greater number of friends and social networks, improved self-esteem and confidence, higher grades in academic work and even better health and general well-being. Studies have shown that whereas speaking raises blood pressure, listening brings it down.

Listening is Not the Same as Hearing

Hearing refers to the sounds that you hear, whereas listening requires more than that – it requires focus. Listening 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. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages. Effective listening requires concentration and the use of your other senses -not just hearing the words spoken. Every public speaker has had a moment where they asked themselves, ‘Did the audience hear me?’ Well, the real question is, ‘Are they listening?’ and that is definitely a matter of choice. Hearing is an involuntary process that starts with noise, vibrations, the movement of fluid in the ears and sound sent to the brain. Where it gets a little complicated is when the noise actually arrives to its final destination – the brain. This is where listening happens. Listening is a voluntary act where we try to make sense out of the noise we hear.

Are you open minded?

Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said. Effective listening involves observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts. We need to prepare ourselves to listen by relaxing and focusing on the speaker, putting other things out of mind. Practicing empathy will help us to understand the other person’s point of view. It will help us to look at issues from their perspective and let go of preconceived ideas. By having an open mind, we can more fully empathise with the speaker and maintain an open mind to the views and opinions of others. Possibly one of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. This also requires patience since a pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. With proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and focus this becomes easier. Finally, knowing when to be silent can be a powerful communication tool. Silence allows the speaker to become aware of his or her own feelings, to explore more deeply and to proceed at his or her own pace. Because many listeners become self-conscious with silence, they feel the need to “break” it by talking or asking questions.

Are you listening for understanding or are you focused more on what you are going to say next? As the other person is speaking, is that little voice in your head preparing your next response?

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