Joanna and Cyndi are sitting at a coffee shop. Joanna has just gone through a divorce and is telling her friend all about it. To a casual observer, it looks as if Cyndi is listening. But take a look at the thoughts running through Cyndi’s head: Really, people get divorced all the time; it’s time to move on. It would help her if she got a job and lost some weight; that’s what I’d do. I hope this never happens to me.
Cyndi thinks she’s a good listener. After all, she’s not interrupting or fidgeting, is she? But what Cyndi is actually doing is hearing her friend. Like so many of us, she’s just not listening. We have all been there hearing simply what we want to hear.
What’s getting in your way of hearing only what you want to hear? What does it take to get yourself ready to listen effectively?
As toddlers, we learn to speak and to hear what others are saying. As we grow up, we learn to read and write, along with other useful skills. But few of us ever learn one of the most vital skills of all—how to really listen.
The ability to listen is different from being able to hear. I can give you so many examples of where I personally got in the way of hearing what was being communicated to and with me that left me at a loss over the past five years. Listening requires something very unique in terms of optimum benefit __ one must ask questions about what was communicated i.e. I am hearing this but is this what you ‘re saying.
To really listen takes our whole attention and focus. The rewards are huge though: happier marriages and families, better communication at work, fewer misunderstandings between friends and others, calmer and less stressful lives. And another bonus: when you listen well, you become someone other people want to listen to.
Real listening can be learned. Research and books such as The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael Nichols, and Mortimer Adler’s How to Speak, How to Listen agree on these key points about listening:
Anyone can learn to be a good listener. While some might be better at this skill than others, listening isn’t about being educated, rich or popular. (Although being a good listener can lead to being well-liked.) Men as well as women can learn to listen, and some of the best listeners are young children who have the ability to drop everything and focus intently on something or someone.
Listening is active. Many of us think of listening as a passive act, just showing up. But real listening requires paying attention, not just to words, but body language and sometimes to what is not being said. It also means responding, not in words but with our facial expressions, head nods and exclamations (“uh huh”) that show we are present.
Listening means turning off the noise inside ourselves. To listen we have to ignore all those voices inside, those judgments and criticisms…Oh, I would never have done that or He just doesn’t see how he’s making a big mistake. It means ignoring the urge to advise and give suggestions (unless asked) and not trying to “fix” the problem or change the other person. Most people don’t want advice, solutions, criticisms or our own stories—they just want to be heard.
Listening means no defenses. Often, when someone tells us something we don’t want to hear, we shut down. Or we lash out or justify. True listening requires putting aside our emotional responses and the need to defend ourselves. Perhaps we believe the talker doesn’t have the story right or is being unfair; that’s okay because it’s his story and it’s not about right or wrong, fact or fiction.
Listening is unselfish. Listening takes time—and who has a lot of that? It’s about ignoring distractions and the urge to interrupt with your own great story. As author Nichols puts it, “Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.”
Take a moment to think about a time when you really wish you had listened. Take the initiative during your next conversation to make sure you’re not only being heard but that you’re hearing what that other person is trying to communicate. Sounds time-consuming but worth the investment. Listening isn’t just about what happens externally but those internal cues that we seldom overlook.
If you’re seeking to better yourself and your listening skills email me to arrange a consultation.
Where are you being that effective listener for yourself, your children, friend, co-worker, team, or your significant other today?
Curt Canada Board Certified Coach coaches and advises clients at Adapting2change in Washington DC. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org