So far, we have discussed all the components of sending a message: non-verbal, para-verbal, and verbal. Now, let’s turn the tables and look at how to effectively receive messages.
Seven Ways to Listen Better Today
Hearing is easy! For most of us, our body does the work by interpreting the sounds that we hear into words. Listening, however, is far more difficult. Listening is the process of looking at the words and the other factors around the words (such as our non-verbal communication) and then interpreting the entire message.
Let’s start out slowly. Here are seven things that you can do to start becoming a better listener right now. Pick a few of them and write them in your action plan.
- When you’re listening, listen. Don’t talk on the phone, text message, clean off your desk, or do anything else.
- Avoid interruptions. If you think of something that needs to be done, make a mental or written note of it and forget about it until the conversation is over.
- Aim to spend at least 90% of your time listening and less than 10% of your time talking.
- When you do talk, make sure it’s related to what the other person is saying. Questions to clarify expand and probe for more information will be key tools. (We’ll look at questioning skills later on in the Course.)
- Do not offer advice unless the other person asks you for it. If you are not sure what they want, ask!
- Make sure the physical environment is conducive to listening. Try to reduce noise and distractions. (“Would you mind stepping into my office where I can hear you better?” is a great line to use.) If possible, be seated comfortably. Be close enough to the person so that you can hear them, but not too close to make them uncomfortable.
- If it is a conversation where you are required to take notes, try not to let the note-taking disturb the flow of the conversation. If you need a moment to catch up, choose an appropriate moment to ask for a break.
Understanding Active Listening
Although the hearing is a passive activity, one must listen actively to listen effectively and to actually hear what is being said.
There are three basic steps to actively listening.
- Try to identify where the other person is coming from. This concept is also called the frame of reference. For example, your reaction to a bear will be very different if you’re viewing it in a zoo, or from your tent at a campsite. Your approach to someone talking about a sick relative will differ depending on their relationship with that person.
- Listen to what is being said closely and attentively.
- Respond appropriately, either non-verbally (such as a nod to indicate you are listening), with a question (to ask for clarification), or by paraphrasing. Note that paraphrasing does not mean repeating the speaker’s words back to them like a parrot. It does mean repeating what you think the speaker said in your own words. Some examples: “It sounds like that made you angry,” or, “It sounds like that cashier wasn’t very nice to you.” (Using the “It sounds like…” precursor, or something similar, gives the speaker the opportunity to correct you if your interpretation is wrong.”
Sending Good Signals to Others
When we are listening to others speak, there are three kinds of cues that we can give the other person. Using the right kind of cue at the right time is crucial for keeping good communication going.
- Non-Verbal: As shown in the Mehrabian study, body language plays an important part in our communications with others. Head nods and an interesting facial expression will show the speaker that you are listening.
- Quasi-Verbal: Fillers words like, “uh-huh,” and “mm-hmmm,” show the speaker that you are awake and interested in the conversation.
- Verbal: Asking open questions using the six roots discussed earlier (who, what, where, when, why, how), paraphrasing, and asking summary questions, are all key tools for active listening. (We will look at questioning skills in a moment.)
These cues should be used as part of active listening. Inserting an occasional, “uh-huh,” during a conversation may fool the person that you are communicating within the short term, but you’re fooling yourself if you feel that this is an effective communication approach.