Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Treatise on Listening: Your Ear is Worth Something

When I was thinking of a topic for an informative discussion, I thought I might as well teach a skill that is relevant to my program as well as something that you can use on a regular basis, whether you are trying to understand an important client’s position, consoling your friend after a difficult split, or stuck in an audience as you are now (in one form or another).

I thought it would be important to teach you something that I myself was formally trained in. However, it’s been quite awhile since I practiced exercises and experimented to increase my ability, so I had to scrape up some memories from high school, when I was a peer conversation partner, because I had become a bit rusty.

The skill in question is active listening, and despite what you may think, it takes considerable practice. Listening isn’t something that simply requires sitting back and waiting until it’s your turn to speak, but also making non-verbal cues and asking appropriate questions to elicit valuable feedback. So in the next couple minutes, when I refer to listening, I’ll also be referring to the responses you’d make while listening.

The skill set can be broken down into the following categories:
Eye contact

[In rearranged order, that’s:

When you’re sitting listening to someone, you want to make it appear that what they have to say to you is important, so this means: not falling asleep, distractedly playing with your shoelace, or looking off in the distance as if you’re not there. Look them straight in the eyes and nod when you agree with them, show facial reactions, shake your head, roll your eyes or verbally sigh when it’s appropriate. Listening is about showing the speaker that you’ve heard and reacted to what they’re saying, so everyone’s listening style will be slightly different because we all react differently.

However, almost universally, it indicates attention to show good posture. Sit up and lean forward engagingly like you would during a critical moment in a hockey game or a horror movie, though it would be good not to look terrified. In certain cultures it is rude to show your feet, so make sure you don’t have your legs crossed or your body slouched. Your hands should be in front of you and ready to be used as communication tools, so keep them unclasped. If it’s comfortable, you can pose as “the thinker” but don’t cradle your head in your hands, because you might just look like you’re trying not to fall asleep.

Give the speaker cues as to how to advance their topic. Conversations are an adventure, but it’s up to you to put up the roadsides. Say things like “I agree that would be a terrible situation” or “I love ice cream too!” It reminds them that you’re part of the conversation, but that you’re content to follow what they have to say.

However, you don’t want to merely be complacent or neutral. Dig deeper into the conversation. Ask open-ended questions or make them elaborate on details. No one likes talking to the wall. That’s why it’s called “active listening”

Sometimes people want advice and sometimes people don’t, but either way it’s important to agree on what you’re hearing with the speaker themselves, so that you can form a reaction that’s suitable to the situation. That’s where a synopsis of the main point or the direction of the conversation is helpful to clarify things. Say things like: “it sounds like you’d rather pay for your son’s education than to have him grow up without a good job” giving a summary of the way they’re feeling or where you suspect they’re going. That way, they can then add to what they said or appropriate it to your understanding.

In terms of advice, it can be helpful if the person is asking for it, but otherwise simply make it clear that the person has your support. When you’re listening to someone, it’s not about you, it’s about them, and sometimes just having a person to listen to you vent is good enough, they don’t need any pearls of wisdom. You can tell them that you appreciate their courage at having told you what they have, or that they can always come back to talk if they need to but if you do offer advice, make it clear why you’re offering it, and on what basis of information. Use “I” language and justify your position. Say: “If I had to deal with your situation, I would be tempted to quit” or “I feel like you don’t really believe what you’re saying” this will give them a chance to negotiate with whichever suggestion you make for a certain outcome and why they believe it is the best solution.

You’ll find that active listening can make a conversation more interesting and more passionate. People have to have trust in each other to be able to share how they really feel. So I encourage you to practice it in every day life, with your friends, families, and co-workers. As a medical professional, salesman, policeman, PR person, or friend, communication is a big part of the profession, so when you’re not talking the talk, hopefully you’re actively listening.


Blogger Blackempress said...

A really interesting read. I am formaly known to b a superb listener but somehow I feel that we all have room for improvement.

Not just that but listening to a person is reaally the best thing one can give to another. thats the beginnnin of human relations & the sustainer of them too.

1:00 a.m.  
Blogger Blackempress said...

u hve been linked.

I thought i wrote a long comment!! hmmm...I think i posted it on the wrong entry:|

1:06 a.m.  
Blogger Blackempress said...

oops! Download error! its there. :)

1:08 a.m.  
Blogger Cocaine Jesus said...

Excellent and thought provoking stuff.

9:35 a.m.  
Blogger gautami tripathy said...

I am a very good listener but then I think all other senses to make a difference....

Great observations, these.

11:22 a.m.  
Blogger Jason said...

It sounds like what you're saying is that active listening involves much more than just opening your ears, am I getting the gyst of your blog posting?

Just kidding, I was trained in this too as a volunteer on a suicide-prevention hotline.

It's a useful tool to have.

11:35 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's when you take everything they've just just summarize it and give it back to them.......

maybe you and Jason could practice this on eachother.....

i just cut people off and tell em what i think because it's more interesting anyway! ;P

11:38 a.m.  
Blogger sirbarrett said...

blackempress -you seem like a good listener and a reader because you're always conscientious of peoples feelings. Thanks for the link!

cocaine jesus -yeah, I had to give a 3-5 minute speech to my class, so besides a few alterations, this was it.

gautami tripathy -you'd have to be a good listener to be such a thorough teacher

jason -next time I'm thinking of putting an end to things, I'll call you up. The opposite invitation is always open.

mitzee -sorry, I wasn't really paying attention to you. Were you trying to say something? Jk, nice boop. PS-my word identification is "bixze". If I were a male version of you, I think that would be my name.

1:06 p.m.  
Blogger MoDigli said...

good stuff. I do some of these things, but I also need to practice others, too. I think they should include this stuff in k-12 education. so many ppl I run into are just so into THEMSELVES and are really POOR listeners.

6:36 p.m.  
Blogger wrr said...

Very informative. Mind if I paste the url of this page in my class blogs? My students could use all this information. It'll improve their reporting and make my teaching life so much easier. Thanks for posting this.

12:50 a.m.  
Blogger sirbarrett said...

modigli -I couldn't agree with you more. With children it would be good to do an activity to make the idea of listening interactive. I think they would have fun if they just took a moment to tell each other in partners what happened to them before they got to school that day. After they had listened, they would have the opportunity to act out what the other person told them, or retell their story, making them proud of what they heard, rather than what they told. We're such a self-gratifying culture that listening as a skill gets lost in the maelstrom of activity. It's a fine art though. Those who appreciate it know exactly why it's essential.

wrr -I'm happy you found it useful. You can certainly link this for your class blogs.

2:29 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sweetie, if u were a male version of me, you'd have giant boobs! that's not ok! lol

1:19 p.m.  
Blogger h1ph0p_j@zzist said...

I'm absolutely wowed at it. i mean I could learn from this and at teh same time be able to establish clearer communication with other people. I wish this could be shared to other people. This can definitely help.

9:07 a.m.  

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