What does listening really mean? We are all told that listening is such a important part of communication between two people, but what does it take to be a good listener?
In my line of work, there is one hell of a lot of communication going on. Be it between me and my colleagues, or between us and our clients. The challenge is to ensure the communication is effective.
I love working with people from different cultural backgrounds, countries, and in different industries. However, those differences can make clear communication that much harder.
The key to success of any of the projects you plan to deliver, and the goals you want to achieve, lies in your ability to listen properly and communicate clearly.
What the French can teach us
Way back in the 1990s when I worked in France, I remember being taught about the difference between listening and understanding.
It came down to understanding the differences in meaning between écouter and entendre. The first is translated as ‘to listen’ and the second as ‘to understand’.
So what I hear you say. Well, so often we listen but we don’t ‘hear’ what is being said and therefore, we don’t understand properly either.
In my experience, one of the ways you can move beyond merely listening and reach a state of true understanding, is by listening in an active manner.
Introducing active listening
I remember many years ago, taking a self-paced online course on active listening. If memory serves me, I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time.
Although I do not recall the course content itself, the principles of active listening have served me well ever since. Those of you who know me well may suggest that I need to take a top up.
Allow me to explain. I have chosen to alliterate the steps that I think are most important using the acronym L.I.S.T.E.N.
L – learn
In order to truly understand your counterpart, it is important for you to learn about their issue or point of view.
What do I mean by that? Well, you need to cut out distraction by focussing on what they are saying. You need to park your own thoughts and judgements and be present in this conversation.
You also may need to probe for more information. However, timing is everything as you are also going to need to learn when to speak and when to listen. It is important not to interrupt.
In some situations, you will have to let them talk for some time before you contribute much yourself. All the while, you need to maintain your focus and retain the salient points of what the other person is saying.
Until you can understand the other person’s perspective, you are not going to make the progress you desire and secure the outcomes that you wish for from the conversation.
I – internalise
Once you have understood and heard the message they are trying to get across, you need to take some time to reflect upon it.
Allow yourself a few moments to internalise what they are telling you. Think back over your own experiences in similar situations.
I’m not suggesting this be very long. A few seconds should be sufficient but the key thing is this. You want to ensure there is a short pause period between them speaking and you responding.
Building in short pauses like that gives both parties chance to reflect and it also shows them you genuinely care and are engaged fully.
S – summarise
At the heart of active listening is your ability to summarise what the other person has said. Not only that, but to do so in their own words. This is perhaps the single most important part of active listening.
The point is you have to be able to replay key messages, statements and arguments the other person made using words and phrases they used themselves.
This very powerful technique is sometimes referred to as paraphrasing or reframing.
Make sure you avoid the temptation to formulate your own response whilst the other person is still talking. It is important to let them speak uninterrupted.
In order to play back what the other person has said, you have to park your own thoughts whilst they are speaking.
T – time
I would like to emphasise, based on my own experience, that active listening takes time. What do I mean by that?
Well, of course it takes time to learn the skill of active listening. But apart from that, if can take time to get to the bottom of what the other person is trying to tell you.
Perhaps you have experienced conversations where an awful lot is ‘not being said’ to begin with. It takes time to peal back the layers to get at the true issue.
Active listening is not the only way to get at what bothers someone. You may use it conjunction with something like the GROW model commonly used by coaches.
E – empathise
Let me ask you this. What use is it having a conversation with somebody, if you can’t empathise with them?
You are a good listener if you can relate to me. If you understand how I am feeling and then you can truly understand the meaning of what I’m trying to say.
By forming a connection with the person opposite you (or at the other end of the phone line, email, etc.) you increase your chances of being able to help them.
Empathy and emotional intelligence are great big topics in of their own right and there is a lot more we could cover here. Perhaps at another time.
N – non-verbal
Finally you say. I think I’ve left the best bit to last. It’s the non-verbal communication. Here we are talking about body language.
One of the biggest challenges today is the fact we conduct so much of our business via SMS and email message. These two-dimensional text based exchanges carry just 7% of the message. What do I mean by that?
When I started my career some twenty years ago, I was told how important the tone in my voice was and the non-verbal signals I was giving off.
According to research, approximately 38% of what we communicate is verbal. This includes factors such as the pace with which you speak and the intonation or inflection you use when speaking. How your voice sounds. How you deliver your message.
The largest part of how we communicate with one another, some 55%, has nothing to do with what we are saying or indeed how we are say it.
Rather, it is all about the non-verbal cues we give. The way we sit or stand. The way we gesture. How we hold ourselves, our posture. Indeed the way we shake hands and the way we dress are all non-verbal parts of communication.
That is why reading non-verbal signals are an intricate part of active listening and something to pay close attention to.
Whether or not we agree with the percentages (7% words, 38% tone, 55% non-verbal), the fact remains, if you can avoid written communication and instead have more face to face or at least phone-based discussions you will benefit greatly and communicate much more effectively.
I hope you found this article thought-provoking. I would love to hear your thoughts. Please also do spread the love and share the article on your favourite network.