Active Listening


We were having dinner a while ago - going around the table and hearing about each person's day. As a person was sharing something that was particularly exciting, the familiar "voice mail received" rudely interrupted and without a second thought, the message was tended to. This was disturbing as we realized that this little intrusion stole a very precious moment from us.

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals..." Henri Nouwen

Communication is critical, especially for healthy relationships.  Communication can be tough even when the ways in which we communicate have expanded greatly. Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging of various sorts and the tremendous appetite for mobile connection seeks only to highlight the personal longing for connection. One challenge, of course, is we are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of communication and it is very easy to be drenched by all the communication but fail miserably to communicate.

How many times have you received an email and read into it an unintended tone? How much is our texting a diminished form of communication because it all but eliminates body language which makes up a very large percentage of communication? How much communicating is actually being done as we are constantly interrupted by funny ringtones or "message received"?

Now don't get me wrong - I am not a technophobe. In fact, I like new gadgets but I am painfully aware of how superficial we're actually relating. The problem is even when we are together face to face - our devices that are designed to help us communicate better - seem to diminish our capacity to communicate, to truly connect with each other even when we are face to face.  I will often ask my clients, and my friends to turn off their telephones when we meet. I want our time together to be meaningful. I want to focus on what they have to say, what they think and feel, and I can't do that effectively with the frequent interruption. I want my clients and friends to be present to me (and me to them) and, to this end I help folks learn to be active listeners.

Active listening is a skill in which we seek to hear what another is trying to communicate. This is done through concentrating on what they say, the words they use, their tone and their body language. Active listening, for me, is the skill of asking questions that are helpful for me to understand what they are saying and meaning. To be fully present to them with undivided attention.

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen. - Ernest Hemingway

A few thoughts about being present to someone and active listening.

Be attentive.  Be aware of potential distraction and try to avoid them.  When you find yourself distracted, simply return your attention back to the conversation.

Understanding - actually comprehending what another person is trying to communicate. This is to understand the words and phrases being used. Note words that may be emotionally charged, cliche's and make sure you understand what they mean when they use them.
Be aware of tone.  We are all aware of sarcasm for example - the same words can be used in two different situations, but inflection can change the meaning dramatically!

Watch body language.   Many may be aware of the popular television drama "Lie to Me" starring Tim Roth.  Roths character Cal Lightman is an expert at reading people using their small facial expressions.  More than a neat idea for a fictional television series, it is based upon real science pioneered by Paul Ekman.  However, one doesn't need to be an expert to notice most body language.  A lot of it is hard wired into us - we just need to learn to be aware. Is their posture open or closed?  What are their facial expressions saying?  Like sarcasm, human beings can say one thing but how they posture themselves and their expressions can tell you how they really feel about what they are saying!

Respond. The easiest way to help ensure you understand what the other is communicating is to reflect back to them what you are hearing - this may look like "It sounds like you were pretty hurt? Or Sounds like you were happy with your progress".  This gives the other person the opportunity to affirm or correct your interpretation of what they are saying.

Ask questions - "you said finer than a fox hair cut three ways - what did you mean?"  Some cliche's and colloquialisms mean one thing to the speaker and quite another to the listener.  Ask the questions.  If you don't understand the chain of events, ask, if you don't understand how they were offend or hurt ask.

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