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Listening is an art.

Published: Nov 6, 10:16 am

‘The art of listening is almost equivalent to the art of speaking.’

Pierre Boiste.

In good communication, listening is the other side of the coin. Yet, when we think about it, credit is usually only given to the speaker, how articulate they are, their ability to convey ideas effectively. But without the listener, what remains may only be sound and fury. Just as speaking is an art, so is listening. We can all learn to enrich our own listening skills.

This means that listening is an integral part of communication. It sends the signal to the other person that you value what they have to say. For example, there is nothing more off putting for you as the speaker to observe the listener looking away whilst in mid flow, one can literally feel cut down at the knees. Especially between partners, real listening demonstrates respect and true intimacy, two indications of a successful relationship. Slackening in one’s attentiveness to what our partner has to say may convey the message that we don’t care, or that what they have to share doesn’t count, we are the ones with all the knowledge. Good, active, effective listening on the other hand shows that you want to learn from, understand, trust, care about, enjoy and nurture your partner. As Paul Tillich, the theologian, reminds us, ‘The first duty of love is to listen.’

The following are a few practical steps we can take to improve our listening skills:

1/Avoid interrupting. Permit the individual to finish his or her thought.
2/Remove distractions – put the phone down, switch the music off.
3/Keep eye contact whilst the speaker is addressing you.
4/Draw in closer to hear, whilst still maintaining personal boundaries.
5/Be aware of body language i.e. unfold your arms, assume an open posture.
6/Respond with verbal and non verbal acknowledgements e.g. ‘yes I understand’, nod your head, lean forwards to show empathy etc.

The above six suggestions reflect an attentive attitude towards listening. Attentive listening is more than mere passivity, it is an active stance in a collaborative process. Through it we are communicating genuine interest in the other person’s point of view. We are ready and willing to learn something new. However, this initial stage of listening will only take one so far. There can still be a tendency to selectively listen. Here, one constructs an understanding of what the speaker is saying based on what the listener wants to take in, rather than truly hearing what the speaker meant to say. At this point in the process, the listener may not be checking whether what they heard was what the speaker intended to communicate.

To move into the second, deeper area of communication, one must cultivate a receptiveness referred to as active listening (or reflective listening). Here listening extends into the realm of dialogue, as the listener responds to the speaker in the form of paraphrasing, clarifying and feedback.

1/Paraphrasing requires careful timing, sensing when the speaker has rounded off a particular thought or thoughts, to avoid interrupting the flow. It is when the listener restates in his or her own words what has just been heard, and can be introduced with phrases such as ‘So correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’ve just said…’, ‘That’s interesting, that point about…’. Paraphrasing enables us to monitor our own misinterpretations, keep track of the discussion, reinforces for the speaker that you genuinely are listening and maintains an open dialogue that is free from defensiveness.

2/Clarifying invites the speaker to unpack further what is being said, to deepen the listener’s understanding. Questions can be asked empathically and are not intended to patronize, interrogate or coerce your partner in any way. Once again the overall intention is the show the speaker how interested you are in what they have to say, clarifying points as they arise.

3/Giving feedback is the listener’s opportunity to respond with his or her own personal thoughts on what the speaker has said, avoiding the pitfalls of bad, inaccurate listening. It is often the case that listeners will be ready to jump in with their own counter argument that they’ve been holding in the wings whilst the speaker has been talking, with the result that the response is more combative, creating a polarization in the dialogue. Even if the response is a disagreement, if the listener has truly listened, applying the skills as listed above, the likelihood is that the speaker’s integrity and point of view will remain intact.

In the initial stages of life we are taught to speak. This, in fact, is an important developmental milestone. Listening, however, is just as important, but is a skill that is often overlooked by parents and educators. When listening we are all too often over eager to assert our own agendas, but are we really listening? Effective listening is a powerful skill to have and is one of the keys to successful interpersonal relationships. When our listening is genuine, we are not only demonstrating love, but our minds are open to the world around us.