People in general, are not taught how to listen. They have ears to absorb sound but actual listening requires skill and effort. Understanding the 7 essential listening skills will put you ahead of the majority of people.
First, lets explore the reason people don’t listen well. Many people find it more difficult to concentrate when listening than during any other form of communication because the human brain has the capacity to digest information at around 400 words per minute. We speak, on average, at around 125 words per minute. That means three-quarters of our brains could be used to do something else while someone is speaking.
Losing concentration and having extra thinking time leads to issues such as:
- Making assumptions
- Missing the point
- Interpreting things in a way that wasn’t intended
- Jumping to conclusions
- Focusing on our own points
All of this of course, leads to poor listening and potentially poor outcomes. So what are the 7 essential skills of listening?
- Be present
First and foremost clear your brain of distractionsand make a decision to listen. Demonstrate that you are listening with your body language, maintaining good eye contact, using facial expressions to communicate interest and having an open posture. People will open up more if they can see you’re interested.
- Use reflective listening or paraphrasing
This technique makes the other person feel heard. It’s simply a way of feeding back your understanding of their points. If the other person says “I’ve been really concerned about the short turnaround times this client keeps expecting of us. It’s putting so much pressure on everyone and that means people are cutting corners and the quality is going downhill” You might reflect back or paraphrase by saying “Yes, I can see that the timeframes are causing problems. Maybe we should arrange a meeting with the client to discuss your concerns.”
- Summarise frequently
Summarising is slightly different to paraphrasing due to the volume of information covered in the summary. Whereas paraphrasing feeds back to the speaker your understanding of one point, summarizing feeds back your understanding of many points or a concept being conveyed. Again, it is highly beneficial for making the speaker feel heard and ensuring a shared understanding. Summarising is largely under utlilised. We should aim to summarise periodically during a conversation and at the end.
- Observe the speaker
By observing the speaker’s body language and facial expressions, as well as their tone of voice we can read between the lines to gain a deeper understandingof their message. For example they may frown or look puzzled by an idea or suggestion but not communicate that verbally. If we ignore these cues as potential sourcesof meaning we may leave a conversation not having explored potential obstacles. We may also identify underlying emotions such as frustration or negativity that can then be addressed.
- Clarify any ambiguity
Language is filled with ambiguity and personal bias. Words mean different things to different people eg. ‘sometimes’ ‘quality’ ‘soon’ In order to listen well, we need to identify and explore any ambiguity to prevent us from making assumptions or jumping to conclusions that can be a source of conflict later on.
- Ask relevant and timely questions
Questions can sharpen the focus of the conversation by digging deeper for details, rationale or opinions. They demonstrate that you are paying attention and are actively engaged in the discussion.
7. Use minimal encouragers
Minimal encouragers are those little words or sounds eg. ‘right’ ‘uh-huh’ ‘go on’ that encourage the speaker to say more. Whilst also useful face to face, they are probably more useful and necessary to convey listening over the phone as the speaker cannot see you looking interested or nodding your head.
By demonstrating these 7 essential listening skills, we can reap all the benefits that they bring. Effective listening has been proven to:
- help resolve conflicts
- improve efficiency by averting potential mistakes and misunderstandings
- save time
- build relationships.
For more information or training in listening skills look at our website.
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