Listening is one of the most powerful tools of communication, leadership and relationships. Here are some things you can begin doing today to develop your listening awareness and expertise. Then watch as your relationships and performance improve, too.
While simply holding your tongue can make you look like you're listening, active listening also involves a conscious, focused effort not only to hear the words but also to discern the complete message the speaker is sending. It takes into consideration the speaker's intent and non-verbal communication, and it's non-judgmental (which, frankly, can be the hard part, so we'll discuss that next time).
To practice active listening, maintain good eye contact and an open body posture. Put down your pen or phone and relax your hands so it doesn't appear that you're just waiting for the speaker to finish so you can get back to "more important" work. Nod your head to acknowledge understanding without interrupting. Let your facial expression reflect an appropriate non-verbal response to what's being said - like concern, joy, disappointment, etc. Active listening may include using words or phrases that invite more information, like a simple "Uh-huh" or "Please tell me more." Active listening isn't just what you don't do; it also shows in what you do!
Reflective listening is the next step after the speaker has completed expressing a thought. Like active listening, it also focuses on the whole message. But at this level, it involves paraphrasing the speaker's message in your own words - "reflecting" it back to him or her without interjecting your own interpretation - in order to convey a desire for mutual understanding. You might begin by saying, "What I heard you say is..." Since reflective listening is used to clarify, the listener often asks questions such as, "Did you say you want the entire report or just the draft completed by Friday?"
Empathy is defined as mentally entering into the feeling of a person with appreciative perception or understanding. After all, most communication isn't 100% objective; many times, a message conveyed has some feeling attached to it. When you're at the receiving end, it's important for your response to acknowledge and validate the emotion. For example, "When you think I'm doing a poor job of listening you feel frustrated and annoyed, and that makes a lot of sense."
Holley Humphrey sums up empathic listening, noting that it's a combination of...
- Having the intention to connect
- Focusing on clarifying the speaker's needs first
- Remembering that criticism may be the by-product of someone's poorly expressed feelings or unmet needs
- Checking the timing before offering your feelings, suggestions, corrections, etc.
So, now your homework is to practice listening actively, reflectively and empathically. It may feel awkward or forced at first, but the more you exercise these principles, the more natural they'll become - and the more you'll improve communication in your personal life and your workplace.
Next time, I'll talk about pitfalls that can mess up everything you just learned today if you're not careful. It's the advanced class in listening!
Live, Work and Relate Well!