Have you ever stopped to consider how powerful it is to listen to someone?
When was the last time you felt someone truly listened to you?
Listening is transformative, not only for the receiver of such attention but the listener as well. One can learn a great deal and be of immense support simply by listening to another person.
I see the power of listening every day at work. As a psychologist, listening is an essential skill. And while it sounds simple, the act of listening is complex and takes a concerted effort. It requires the ability to suspend oneself and to immerse completely in what another person is expressing.
Modern life is full of distractions setting us up to fail at listening to one another. We have hectic schedules, take our phones everywhere we go, multitask throughout the day, and seldom sit in silence because of the constant influx of stimuli.
While we may hear what is going on around us, we forget how to listen to those around us.
There is a significant difference between hearing and listening.
Hearing is the process, function or power of perceiving sound.
Listening is paying attention to someone or something to hear what is being said with thoughtful attention. Listening has two major components: to take in information and to witness and take in another person’s emotional experience.
- Is an active process.
- Is the act of letting yourself for a moment in time to focus on another person.
- Requires the use of empathy, or imagining the feelings and experiences of another person.
- Means to hold your judgement, opinions and/or values about what you are hearing.
- Is suspending your need to provide solutions.
Psychologist, Dr. Michael Nichols, and author of The Lost Art of Listening, highlights many people believe they are good listeners when in fact, they aren’t. Dr. Nichols notes not only are people distracted when communication, they also have a tendency to interrupt. Dr. Nichols outlines phrases that get in the way of effective listening. These phrases include the following:
- “That reminds me of a time when…” Instead of rushing into your experience, focus on the person, provided support and acknowledgment and then share your perspective.
- “Oh how awful.” It is important to give sympathy in conversations. However, excessive emotional expressions take the focus off the other person and isn’t listening. Dr. Nichols notes, “listening means taking in, not taking over.” His suggestion is to acknowledge the speakers experience in a genuine way without expressions or emotions that come across as patronizing and dis-genuine.
- “Well, if I were you…” When someone is seeking support, unsolicited advice is not only annoying, it shuts down a person’s ability to further express him/herself. Dr. Nichols notes, “telling a person with a problem to “do something constructive'” reflects the listener’s inability to tolerate his or her own anxiety. Instead, the suggestion is to suspend oneself when listening and be responsive rather than introducing your own agenda.
- “Don’t feel that way.” Telling someone not to feel something not only dismisses a person’s feelings through lack of acknowledgement, but it’s also emotionally isolating. And, when you tell someone not to feel, in essence, you are conveying the message that you are uncomfortable with the content and emotion expressed in the conversation.
If you want to improve your listening skills, I suggest doing the following:
- Limit Distractions and Don’t Multitask. Turn off the television, put your phone away, get your kids engaged in another activity and focus on the person in front of you. Don’t do the dishes, fold laundry, cook, surf the net during important conversations. Distractions and multitasking increase the opportunity for miscommunications and misunderstandings.
- Focus and relax. Try to manage the distractions in your mind, and focus on the person in front of you. This can be tough at first. You may be compelled to reassure or offer solutions to the person. Instead, relax and focus, your only job is to be supportive through active listening.
- Listen. Start with letting go of the need to reply to what is being said and simply listen to what is being expressed. Take in the information being shared. Your job is to listen to what is being said in the conversation.
- Body Language and Nonverbals. Active listening includes eye contact, congruent body language, such as facing the person in a relaxed posture or seated position and leaning in denotes interest. You can respond with small nonverbals, for example, small gestures such as smiling, nodding and verbal responses of saying uh-huh, I see, I understand.
- Don’t Interrupt or Use Insensitive Phrases. As mentioned previously, your only job is to provide support through active listening. Refrain from interrupting and from using the aforementioned phrases mentioned by Dr. Nichols.
- Express Empathy and Compassion. Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experience and emotions. Compassion is the ability to understand what someone is feeling and wanting to alleviate their suffering. Listening can demonstrate empathy and is one example of active compassion; listening can decrease suffering.
- Suspend judgement, advice and opinions until it is asked of you. This can be a tough one to manage. When we listen to others, we can be flooded with ideas and suggestions to offer advice, fix a problem, or share our opinions. Instead, focus on listening and waiting until you are asked for solutions and opinions.
- Ask Open-ended Questions. When it’s your time to talk, ask open-ended questions. There are two types of questions, open-ended questions, which elicit information and closed-ended questions, which usually result in one-word answers yes, no, maybe. Close-ended questions give facts, whereas open-ended questions increase communication and expression. For example:
Close-ended: Did you have a good day today?
Open-ended: Tell me about your day today.
Close-ended: Who started the argument, you or your sister?
Open-ended: Can you tell me about the argument between you and your sister?
Close-ended: Can I do anything to help you?
Open-ended: Describe two things I can do to help you now.
- Summarize what you have heard. When there is a pause and it’s your time to talk, summarize the main points, themes, or feelings you have heard and observed.
- Offer Support. Instead of jumping into how to change, fix or solve the issues, ask how you can be supportive.Don’t assume the person wants advice, suggestions or opinions, so by asking you are respectful and focused on the person’s needs versus your own.
Over the next week, pay attention to how you listen to others and how others listen to you. Try some of these suggestions and notice what happens when you truly listen.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2015