Listening is easy, right? You simply have to pay attention to the other person, make sure you look them in the eye, nod occasionally and wait patiently for your turn to speak…
Although this might sound like an exaggeration, often this is the unconscious habit we fall into when having a conversation with others. As Stephen Covey states in his best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.
Like talking, listening is something we do all the time every day of our lives, and something that we take for granted as it comes naturally to us. But how many of us really listen effectively, with intent, and fully consciously? Or do we, as in the example above, simply use the time that another person is speaking to think about what we are going to say next, and then wait for an opportunity to jump in and grab control of the conversation as soon as we can?
“My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that’s what she said.”
To be truly effective as a listener this means much more than simply hearing the words that another person is saying. It requires an ability to demonstrate empathy with them – a mutual understanding which is explicitly shared – showing that we are in tune with, or are able to resonate with their inner thoughts and feelings.
It means building genuine rapport with the other person; developing an intense relationship which is emotionally charged, trusting and respectful. It means reflecting what we hear, see and intuitively sense from the other person, in a way that shows them that we care and understand. You may be forgiven for thinking, “Wow – that all sound like hard work!” because actually, if you are really listening deeply and intensely and with genuine intent to understand, then yes it is hard work.
The benefits of this however are twofold – first you really get to understand where the other person is coming from; you walk in their shoes and see things the way they see them, which helps to add meaning to their words and colour to the world as they see it.
Secondly the other person feels truly listened to, and appreciated for what they have to say, and this is much more likely to enhance the overall communication process and enhance the relationship between you as a result.
According to Covey there are 5 levels of listening:
- Selective listening,
- Attentive listening and
- Empathic listening,
In practice we probably move up and down the levels many times during a typical conversation – as we said earlier it takes a lot of effort and concentration to remain at the empathic listening level for a significant period of time. The most important thing perhaps is to be able to recognize the level you are in at any given point, and to endeavor to listen at the highest level possible as often as you can.
As Covey says, ‘In empathic listening you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.’
Bad listening habits
As well as recognizing good listening habits it is also useful to be aware of and look out for our own bad listening habits. One particularly poor listening habit, which many of us fall into, is that of “lazy” listening, where we give all the outward signs of listening, but our minds have wandered and we are thinking about something completely different, or perhaps we sneak a glance over their shoulder at the clock on the wall, wondering how much longer the conversation will last?
Other poor listening habits include faking attention, tuning out of the conversation or becoming distracted by other thoughts or outside stimuli, all of which communicates to the other person that they are not that important and not really worth listening to. And besides, we may also miss some key point or detail that they are trying to give us.
Effective listening is a skill – it requires hard work and practice, but the benefits, especially to enhanced relationships make it well worth it. If you don’t remember anything else about effective listening, just make sure you remember rule number one: The first step of listening is ‘close your mouth’.
“Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” Ed Cunningham
Watch Dr Covey explain the principles of empathic listening using the “Talking Stick” Technique…
<youtube video here…>