It’s a very useful skill, and one that is frequently underestimated.
Not many people are great listeners. One of the main reasons people do not listen well is because of the tendency to filter a lot of information that hits us. Maybe we think that what they are saying is unimportant, or we do not like the person, or we simply have other things on our mind.
Sometimes we will only take in every fifth or seventh word, and believe we are taking in information effectively.
Most of the time, people get clues to the fact that other people are not listening to them. If the person is fidgeting, looking at their watch, look glazed or are looking beyond you to another person, it is obvious that they are not giving you their full attention.
As a psychologist, one of the primary skills taught is that of listening. The majority of information taken in by people is either ignored, misunderstood or forgotten. Human beings are not naturally very good at being listeners.
One of the most important listening skills is that of attending. Attending to a conversation is showing the other person that you are interested in what they are saying, and that you are paying attention.
Some typical ways of attending are:
- Making eye contact with the person.
- Nodding and tilting the head to respond.
- Responding with appropriate facial gestures and comments.
The above are all attending behaviours. Non-attending behaviours are for example, things like fiddling, looking around, and looking at a watch.
Pretending to attend
People will often pretend that they are attending to what another person is saying by maintaining eye contact with the person throughout the conversation. Most of the time the person speaking knows when they are not being listened to. Listening and attending must be genuine.
Often people do genuinely try to listen, but they have a habit of fiddling or gazing around, and do not realise it. They send a message to the other person that they are not really listening, or interested. Usually it has the effect of making the other person stop talking. Not attending gives the wrong impression.
A messy desk
Piles of paper and work on a person’s desk almost acts as a barrier to effective listening. If a person has a mountain of things on the desk in front of you, this can be quite distracting. If you have a messy desk, it is good to actually physically put down whatever you are doing, and even move whatever is in front of you aside, because it gives the other person a kind of open feeling of being listened to. This is especially the case for managers and supervisors.
Often people will assume they know what the other person is talking about, or interpret things in the light of their own issues. Projecting your own issues on to other people is an internal trap.
Believing you have the rest of a person’s story without listening to the rest of their story, and assuming you know what they are going to say, can be very annoying for the speaker. Often if you assume, you can end up going down the wrong path.
It is easy to start assuming and finish off what a person is trying to say when you are feeling pushed for time. This is especially the case when the person is very talkative or long-winded.
If the person is being long-winded, it is a good idea to try and direct the conversation by summarising what you think they are saying: “You’re talking to me about problems in your office and…”. Summarise and condense what a person says, and hand it back to them.
The benefits of this are:
- It is a good way to check whether you have really heard what was said as it gives the other person the opportunity to correct you.
- It is a good way to build rapport as the person feels they are really being listened to.
- It acts as a controlling device. People who are long-winded or talkative need to break for a breath at some point, so you can use this to summarise and move the conversation along.
These techniques would help people to avoid a lot of conflict and problems.
The three main things to listen for
There are three main things in what a person is saying to listen for in order to understand exactly what they are trying to communicate.
- The intention. What exactly is it that the person is intending to communicate? Find the key issue in what they are saying. If the person is complaining about something, try to avoid getting defensive and find out what the person’s real message is.
- The pattern. A person may be talking about a number of different things, when really they simply want to communicate one thing. Listen for a common thread or pattern in what they are saying. For example, it may turn out that the supervisor is not helping the person enough, or that they are feeling uncertain about a new task.
- The emotion. The emotion that they express throughout the conversation will act as a marker for the intention.
Another aspect of listening is something that could be termed as “follow-up listening”. Often you might be re-playing a conversation you had earlier in the day and suddenly you will realise what it was the other person was saying. You might go back to the person and say, “I was thinking about what you said and…”. Adding some later insight is good as the other person knows they were listened to.
It is amazing how much time is wasted by people not really understanding what each other is saying. We need to develop the skills for listening and understanding, and realise that it is OK not to be perfect at something straight away.
By Eve Ash, psychologist and managing director, Seven Dimensions, and author of Rewrite Your Life! (Penguin 2002) and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the Ash.Quarry production – Listening (from the Take Away Training series © Ash.Quarry Productions) www.7dimensions.com.au
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