There is a difference between hearing and listening. We can hear birds chirping outside without really noticing them but a person actively listening may be able to tell you what kind of birds and where they are outside or even imitate their songs. Listening is the other half of effective communication and is a really big part of my job. How can I know what your trouble is, what your needs are and what your goals may be if I am not listening? Below are 3 key points in active listening. Try keeping one or all three in mind next time you’re out with a friend.
When you’re listening you’re not talking Seems obvious but we have all experienced being talked over, interrupted or otherwise ignored when we are trying to speak. It can often feel like someone is listening to us only so that they can talk. Listening to reply is not the same as listening to understand the other person. We can’t fully give our attention to someone speaking when we are conducting sentences in our minds and spilling them out through our mouths. When we listen like this we are not receiving information that is being presented, we can end up selectively hearing things to populate our own opinions or arguments for the sake of agreeing with our own preconceived conclusions about what is going on (#3). When listening, we want to give the speaker our undivided attention, keep comments to a minimum and let the other person “speak their fill.” This allows us to hear all of what is being communicated and even pick up on some things that are being said without words.
Ask questions and clarify Of course, if you get confused, as the listener you need take the responsibility for clarifying what you are hearing. If possible wait for a natural pause and ask for more information or for the speaker to repeat something. This is also a good time to paraphrase what you have heard, so the speaker can hear back what you think they said and meant, and clean up that understanding if they need to. This is such an encouraging way to help a person speak even better, helps them feel truly heard, and can foster crystal clear communication.
Let go of judgement In some relationships, when a certain person requests our attention we may find ourselves employing a small, annoying version of them in our minds saying “blah blah blah clean up your room.” We arrive at a conclusion about what the person is saying or meaning, or even about the person themselves, before they have had the opportunity to express themselves. They may not have even done more than say your name. To the speaker, this sounds like “yeah yeah yeah” and often looks like an eye roll. To the listener it can feel like a huffy sigh or a distractedness as you actively DON'T listen. It is always a barrier to effective communication. Letting go of this can be super tough and no one will be perfect at it all the time. Some people will be harder to suspend judgement of than others so this one is definitely an on going practice. But it is a very important part of active listening; by doing this we are giving the speaker not just our full attention, but an open field of reception for them to express themselves in. We also give ourselves the chance to see an old familiar in a new light.
Some great ways to practice listening can involve no speaker at all. Listen to some favourite and familiar music and really pay attention to every note. DO you find a new level of emotionality expressed you had missed before? Perhaps a certain ding, or trill of an instrument that you hadn't noticed will suddenly stand out adding a whole new layer to the music you thought you knew so well. Or go to the woods and practice noticing the different sounds you hear; differentiate the sound the wind makes through different kinds of trees and leaves, or different insects or bird calls. Perhaps there is a little brook near by you'd never even known was there.