Advice & News

August 9, 2022

Check Your Listening Skills for Better Communication


Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art/ Shutterstock

As a mediator and teacher of mediation and alternative dispute resolution practices, I can't do enough to remind others (and myself especially) of the importance of effective listening. Effective communication begins with effective listening. One article can't begin to cover such an important topic, but we can at least benefit from reminders about basic listening practices which I share in the form of a checklist. Accordingly, when engaging in your next conversation or reviewing a conversation in retrospect, consider the extent to which you:

Recognize the other person's need to be heard. This checklist begins with recognizing that the friend, colleague, loved one, acquaintance, or stranger you are with has something important to share. Whether vital or trivial to you, it matters greatly to them, and you have the good fortune and honor to be the recipient. Seize the opportunity and...

Prepare yourself. Your listening opportunity may be relatively easy if you have no serious stake in the matter, but we are particularly challenged to be better listeners in conflicts and relationship challenges in which we are directly involved. We are prone to do anything but listen and assert ourselves and our needs and priorities. Time to check the ego -- recognize the need to adopt a different approach and pattern to your interactions. Show care and concern, be the first to listen, and...

Make it about the other person. Signal to the other person that, in effect, "you have something important to say -- I need to listen to you. The floor is yours." Then, mean it. Let them know upfront you'd like to understand their viewpoint or position before expressing your own. Hold firm to a mindset and commitment that you will consciously focus on what they have to say and encourage their sharing while checking yourself when you want to insert yourself.

Foster conditions for open sharing. Ensure ample time and space for sharing. If now is not the time, ask to meet at a time you can give full attention and not feel rushed. When you meet, ensure against distractions and interruptions such as phones and computers that go "ding" and others walking in on you. Check your emotions, as difficult as this may be, to ensure the person feels confident they can speak freely in a spirit of trust without having to manage your reactions and outbursts.

Engage in active listening. We understand the basic tools of attentive listening like sitting up straight, squaring our body to the other person, establishing appropriate eye contact (not staring or looking creepy), head nods, and hand gestures to signal the person to keep talking. This also includes brief statements like "please say more about that," reinforcements like "I'm listening" and "I see," and standard guttural expressions like "uh huh" or "hmmm."

Use paraphrases and empathic responses. You demonstrate your intent to understand with summary statements that begin with "you are saying," "you feel" or similar phrases. A paraphrase captures the content of what the listener heard, such as "you are saying that your calendar is full of commitments with no space for additional work." An empathic response adds your understanding of the underlying feelings the speaker is experiencing, such as "You feel that adding one more project at this time will frustrate and stress you, and it bothers you when you have to take half measures to get a job done."

Check in to ensure the person feels understood. After paraphrasing or an empathic response, questions like "is that right?" or "is that how you feel?" demonstrate that you truly want to understand the speaker's concerns in the way he or she expresses it. The beauty of this is that it gives the person the chance to say, "not quite" or "sort of, except you missed two points..." Be sure the speaker doesn't passively agree that you've captured their concern by saying something like, "are you sure because I truly want to be sure I understand." Go back and forth a few rounds if needed to be sure the person feels fully heard.

Deepen your listening by being wholly present. The last three points reflect only a surface level of listening. The most insincere, manipulative person can mimic the "mechanics" of listening without caring about the speaker. You must be wholly present, which includes being patient, often quiet, tolerant of long silences, and calm and non-reactive to strong emotion, among other efforts. There is no script for this. You must be your authentic self to show you are there for the other person.

Attend to non- and para-verbals. We communicate with more than words, but with the non-verbal meanings that we give to words, such as facial expressions, body movement, spatial distance, and touch. We give further meaning by the emphasis, pitch, rhythm, tempo, and volume in our speech. We must pick up what others are really saying by the meaning they give through these other "languages" and, if necessary, seek clarification. One example is reflecting back, "you're saying you're fine with the decision, but the way you're are saying it [through body language, sarcasm, downcast eyes, etc.) suggests you really aren't okay with it. Is that what's really going on?"

Support continued sharing. We signal the speaker to continue sharing with statements or questions that encourage ("what do you think about that?"), validate ("I can understand why you might feel upset"), reflect ("this was extremely frustrating for you"), and clarify ("help me understand when this occurred," "do you mean..." etc.). Insert these and similar statements and questions to help the person continue along the path they have begun in the process of sharing.

Avoid statements that shut the speaker down. This happens when we advise ("What you should do is..."), command ("You had better..."), diagnose ("The problem with you is..."), discount ("It can't be all that bad"), judge ("That was a dumb thing to do"), preach ("You ought to know better"), or threaten ("This is the last time I'll help you on this"). We also risk shutting the speaker down by telling our story prematurely, such as "I know exactly what you mean, I had a similar situation, what I did was..." Such interventions may be well intended. Think of the parent advising a troubled teenager or the colleague who genuinely believes their story will provide helpful insight. But take care in how and when we engage in these practices -- gently, supportively, and usually after the speaker has fully shared. Remember, it is about them, not you.

Slow things down. True, deep listening cannot be rushed. Consider the time you may need to ensure full engagement in your conversation, then double it. When someone needs your support simply to listen, don't treat it like a normal business conversation. Recognize the risks of distraction, pressure to get to other business, or preoccupation with other worries, and take measures to account for them, and ensure your full attention to the conversation you need to have now.

As noted, effective listening encompasses many more mindsets, skills, and practices than we can cover in one article. I'll conclude with a few resources to provide additional insights and tools:

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