It should be automatic, like breathing. After all, we listen all the time. Or do we?
The fact is listening and hearing aren’t the same thing. Hearing is the first stage of listening. Sound waves are picked up by your ears and transported to your brain. Listening is different. It’s a communication process and requires active participation.
So how do you hone your listening skills to become a good listener? For advice, we talked to Dianne Schilling, an expert in business communication skills.
It may sound obvious, but you can’t add to our knowledge or understanding if you're busy talking. Dianne describes listening as a master skill. “Like any other skill, competency is achieved through learning and practice,” she advises. Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for listening is distracted half-attention, constant interruptions, multilayered, high-volume, talkfest free-for-alls with little listening at all.
“I think I’ll learn more from listening. Anything I would say, I already know.”—Anonymous student explaining why she did not wish to participate in a discussion, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor.
According to Dianne, “In order to become an effective listener, you have to learn to manage what goes on in your own mind. Good listening requires the temporary suspension of all unrelated thoughts—a blank canvas.” Give speakers 100% of your attention, along with the time they need to complete their thoughts. That means no interrupting, no finishing their sentences and no formulating your reply before they are finished speaking. If you’re thinking of your response before they are done, you cannot learn all they have to offer.
“A wise man listening to a fool will learn more than a fool listening to a wise man.”—Anonymous
“A good listener is not just a silent receptacle, passively receiving the thoughts and feelings of others. To be an effective listener, you must respond with verbal and nonverbal cues which let the speaker know—actually prove—that you are listening and understanding,” says Dianne. These responses are called feedback.
“Verbal feedback works best when delivered in the form of brief statements, rather than questions,” Dianne points out. (Your questions often get answered if you wait.) “Statements allow you to paraphrase and reflect what you’ve heard, which affirms the speaker’s success at communicating and encourages the speaker to elaborate further.” Simple phrases like “uh-huh” and “I see” let a speaker know you’re following what he or she says.
“I think one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention.”—Diane Sawyer
Dianne Schilling is an instructional designer, writer, editor and founding partner of womensmedia.com.
Ten Steps to Effective Listening
- Dianne Schilling offers ten steps to becoming a better listener:
1. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
2. Be attentive yet relaxed.
3. Keep an open mind.
4. Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
5. Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions.”
6. Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.
7. Ask questions only to ensure understanding of something that has been said (avoiding questions that disrupt the speaker’s train of thought).
8. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.
9. Give the speaker regular feedback, e.g. summarize, reflect feelings or simply say “uh huh.”
10. Pay attention to what isn’t said—to feelings, facial expressions, gestures, posture and other nonverbal cues.
Schilling’s last piece of advice: “When in doubt about whether to listen or speak, keep listening.”