Energize Your Communication—Become a Genuine Listener

Dynamic listening is more than simply hearing. Consider music. You probably hear music almost every day—as background to a TV show or in the supermarket. Even if you are not consciously aware of hearing the music, it creates a mood. Rarely will you attend to the lyrics or dance to the rhythm of this music. Contrast this with your behaviour at a concert, symphony, or dance. Your body is turned in the direction of the band or orchestra. You may experience an emotional rush as you allow the music in. You may involve your body, swaying or humming, or clapping in time. When the music ends, you applaud or stand up and shout. You are listening dynamically.

Imagine giving that kind of attention to another human being—involving yourself actively in what they are saying. Then you are listening rather than merely hearing. Active listening forms the basis of healthy relationships. It encourages interaction with another, rather than the passive role usually taken with doctors, teachers, and other experts. Active listening allows you to step inside the other’s shoes and see, hear, and feel the world from their perspective. With this, miracles can happen.

Good listeners are made, not born—made by their willingness to observe the volumes spoken between the lines in conversation. Good listeners ‘hear’ a clenched fist or a look in the eye as much as they hear someone’s words. They are patient and non-judgemental. They acknowledge other people’s views without immediately trying to correct or help them. They assume that speakers are the experts about themselves, and become a witness to their self-discovery. They ask questions to clarify meaning and paraphrase what they heard to confirm they understood. They are an active presence. They look at you, smile, nod, or give other appropriate forms of nonverbal feedback. A good listener can be a very good friend.

Barriers to Good Listening

Look over the list below and identify those barriers that you habitually use.

  • Evaluating and judging. Are you so busy criticising what others are saying that you don’t hear them?
  • Interrupting. When you don’t allow the other person to complete a thought, you are not listening.
  • Jumping to conclusions. It is easy to mentally fill in the details of what someone is saying, and assume you have understood. Check out your assumptions!
  • Selective listening. People tend to hear what they expect to hear, need to hear, or want to hear, and block out the rest. For example, if you have been lacking confidence in yourself, you might hear everything that is said to you through a filter of ‘I’m no good’. You might tune out everything that is critical or unpleasant because it is too threatening to hear.
  • Advising. You may think that you have to answer every question asked and solve every problem. Not true. The other person may simply be thinking aloud, asking rhetorical questions, or just looking for a supportive presence. Let others specifically ask for help or advice. Otherwise, just listen and be there. Perhaps ask how they would advise a friend with a similar problem.
  • Lack of attention. Do you let your mind wander frequently in conversations, giving in to other noises and distractions or to your own daydreams or plans? Be honest—admit your temporary lack of attention to the person speaking. If boredom is the problem, get involved. Ask questions. Ask for examples. Summarise what you hear the other person saying. If all else fails, tell the other person honestly that you need to leave or get back to what you were doing. Good listening need not be a matter of silent endurance.

Towards Dynamic Listening

Consider which of the listening barriers cited above you practise. When? With whom? Why? Choose one listening block that you can chip away at. Who can you practise better listening with? Under what circumstances?

Watch yourself throughout your next interaction with that person, noticing how easily you fall into habitual patterns and how well you implement your new active listening behaviour. Make a tally sheet of the times you blocked communication, and the times you broke through the block with active listening. Write about your experience to help clarify it for yourself.
Remember, you cannot change another person, but the quality of your relationship can be improved if you practise active listening.

Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, and Regina Sara Ryan, www.thewellspring.com

Published in Kindred, Issue 27

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