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Listening makes our loved ones feel worthy, appreciated, interesting, and respected. Ordinary conversations emerge on a deeper level, as do our relationships. When we listen, we foster the skill in others by acting as a model for positive and effective communication.
In our love relationships, greater communication brings greater intimacy. Parents listening to their kids helps build their self-esteem. In the business world, listening saves time and money by preventing misunderstandings. And we always learn more when we listen than when we talk.
Listening skills fuel our social, emotional and professional success, and studies prove that listening is a skill we can learn.
The Technique. Active listening is really an extension of the Golden Rule. To know how to listen to someone else, think about how you would want to be listened to.
While the ideas are largely intuitive, it might take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skills. Here’s what good listeners know — and you should, too:
1. Face the speaker. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.
2. Maintain eye contact, to the degree that you all remain comfortable.
3. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your book or magazine, and ask the speaker and other listeners to do the same.
4. Respond appropriately to show that you understand. Murmur (“uh-huh” and “um-hmm”) and nod. Raise your eyebrows. Say words such as “Really,” “Interesting,” as well as more direct prompts: “What did you do then?” and “What did she say?”
5. Focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. The conversation will follow a logical flow after the speaker makes her point.
6. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep horning in, simply let them go and continuously re-focus your attention on the speaker, much as you would during meditation.
7. Keep an open mind. Wait until the speaker is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what the speaker is thinking.
Have you tried and tried but your best is still not good enough? Don’t know what to do next? Talk to a mentor.
8. Avoid letting the speaker know how you handled a similar situation. Unless they specifically ask for advice, assume they just need to talk it out.
9. Even if the speaker is launching a complaint against you, wait until they finish to defend yourself. The speaker will feel as though their point had been made. They won’t feel the need to repeat it, and you’ll know the whole argument before you respond. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in…and be ready for more.
10. Engage yourself. Ask questions for clarification, but, once again, wait until the speaker has finished. That way, you won’t interrupt their train of thought. After you ask questions, paraphrase their point to make sure you didn’t misunderstand. Start with: “So you’re saying…”
As you work on developing your listening skills, you may feel a bit panicky when there is a natural pause in the conversation. What should you say next? Learn to settle into the silence and use it to better understand all points of view.
Ironically, as your listening skills improve, so will your aptitude for conversation. A friend of my partner once complimented me on my conversational skills. I hadn’t said more than four words, but I had listened to him for 25 minutes.
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