Can you Hear Me? The Skill of Listening

Learning to listen well has been a life long challenge for me, and maybe for some of you. Many of us can get caught in defensive listening. Defensive listening is the temptation to listen looking for an error, or to formulate a response or a rebuttal before the person has finished speaking. Sometimes we listen through defensive ears waiting for the secret, personal criticism or condemnation hidden within their words. We can quite easily miss the heart of what is being communicated because we are more interested in defending ourselves, winning an argument or expressing our point of view than listening than seriously considering what the other is trying to say. While we may be hearing, we may not be truly listening.

To listen, it is important that we employ some intentionality. This means that we stop and focus on the person who is speaking to us. A cute way of saying it is we listen with both ears - the idea being that we give the speaker our undivided attention. The other aspect is using our eyes. Eye contact is a really good skill because it communicates to the speaker that we are present. Likewise, the eyes are a gateway to the soul, and we can tell a lot about a person by looking them in the eyes when they are speaking. This should not be confused with the intense stare of the crazed hypnotist trying to intimidate the other!

The eyes also serve us as we can pick up a lot of what a person is saying by their body language. Many experts agree that the lion's share of communication is nonverbal, and we can pick up cues adding important context when we actively listen which includes using our eyes!

The next tool is our heart! No, not the organ pumping blood throughout our body but that symbol of the place in each of us where our consciousness resides - that place that we really live from. This is where genuine self-awareness can be helpful. As we learn about who we are and gain some insights into our strengths, weaknesses, bumps and bruises we can listen while being aware of the potential filters we might be receiving the other through. It is amazing how the wounds, smudges and blind spots of our life can greatly influence how we hear someone. 

 A short example. Have you ever read a friend's Facebook post and was struck by the fear that they might be talking about/criticizing you? How about receiving an email of a few short lines and because of the way we are feeling we fill in the tone of the other person's email? We need to be aware that we can also do this in conversations. Being aware of our stuff (filters) will help us to be better able to suspend defensive listening or reacting in a nasty way to something that was never intended to be nasty.

Here are a couple helpful ideas for better listening:

  • Be sure you understand what the other is saying before formulating your reply. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. Seek to confirm your assumptions about what they are saying and how they feel about it.
  • Avoid Pre-emptive Judging. The temptation based on our assumptions and our bias is to judge a person's position before they have made it. This pre-emptive judgment actually skews the way that we hear others by letting us hear only those things that justify our judgement. Understand and then evaluate.
  • Be Attentive. Should be obvious but I’m not sure it always is. Try to be truly present to the person who is speaking. Try to avoid thinking about what happened in your day before the conversation and try to avoid thinking about what you have yet to do in your day. Use helpful eye contact and give non-word verbal cues like “Ok", “Uh huh”, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify without offering your critique.
  • Make Space for Silence. Don’t be afraid of silence. Many people feel very uncomfortable with silence in a conversation. It is often a good idea for an active listener to leave that space and not feel the need to fill it with their own response. The speaker will also feel some discomfort in the silence and may offer new information. Leave space for people to formulate their thoughts. Provide positive feedback as discussed above with eye contact, our own body language and non-word verbal cues.

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