Listening is such a simple process. One person talks, the other person listens. Or do they?
We often confuse hearing with listening. The two are different, though both are done with our ears. Hearing is a natural function of the ear which involves the reception of sound. It's one of your senses. Listening is an acquired skill which involves the processing of words for the purpose of understanding communication messages from other humans.
Listening is not something we are taught, and short of getting direct feedback from those we communicate with we don't have a way of measuring our proficiency. Due to this fact most of us have an exaggerated sense of how well we listen. Studies show that the development of your listening skills is crucial to the overall success and fulfillment you will experience throughout your career and life because it dramatically improves your ability to relate to and connect with others.
Are you a good listener? Maybe. Can you become a better listener? Definitely; we all can. Any skill that can be practiced can be improved. Is it difficult? Yes, but the difficulty lies in learning to apply the skills consistently. In order to truly appreciate the significance of proficient listening skills you must first recognize that verbal communication is a two-part process that's comprised of both listening and talking. We've established that listening is the part that most people underdevelop, what we haven't established is why.
After reading a plethora of information on the subject of listening it seems that the top reason that people get distracted from the task of listening is...they simply aren't interested in the subject matter, the person, or both. How's that for scientific study and research. This forces us to revert back to the natural function of the ear as a hearing device. When we have no interest in what we are hearing (or who we are hearing it from) we process the sounds differently and pay less attention; thus preventing us from listening.
Studies show that people who have a natural curiosity tend to be better learners. Better learners also make better listeners and take a genuine interest in other people. Listening, as you recall, is the processing of words for the purpose of understanding communication messages from other humans. When listening with the objective of understanding both the content and the emotions of another person that's empathetic listening which enables you to pay attention to another person with empathy (emotional identification, compassion, feeling, and insight). Those who habitually employ empathetic communication techniques experience more satisfaction in their daily interactions with people.
Empathetic listening is very similar to what psychologists refer to as "active listening" whereby you repeat back to the person what you think she or he said to make certain you understand. Another technique is to ask how the person feels about the situation or perhaps to make a statement about how you believe the person feels. Empathetic listening is characterized by a genuine desire to understand the words and the emotions of the messages communicated by others.
When these messages are insufficiently received, there are usually several factors which prevent it. Thinking is the most common. The usual scenario is thinking about what you are going to say in response to what someone just said, rather than thinking about what they are saying. What causes us to do so much thinking while we are communicating with someone? Ego and emotions.
The negative impact that ego has on listening skills is major because ego dictates the perspective from which we listen. Those who are egotistical, highly educated, opinionated, or hyper analytical are better at sending off information (about themselves) than they are at receiving and processing information (about others). Ego blocks motivation for achieving empathy and creates a barrier in establishing a meaningful connection between two people.
While some may say that communication styles are what determines your ability to effectively communicate with someone else, your emotions (or emotional state) is more likely to erect filters which affect your ability to engage in empathetic listening. If you are a naturally cynical, oppositional, negative, critical, insecure, close-minded, pessimistic, or self-absorbed person you will listen to others and process the messages they send you from the base of those emotions. Needless to say, such emotions will strain attempts at empathetic listening if left unchecked.
People have different filters rooted in their culture, upbringing and gender. Men and women often have different kinds of filters, and that causes listening problems. Just by becoming aware of your own filters (even without changing them) you will improve your listening. This is where interpersonal skills come in to play. Interpersonal skills are all the behaviors and feelings that help us to understand ourselves and others. They also influence our interactions with others.
In order to unlock the key for empathetic listening, find common ground in the conversation which enables you to go from spectator to participant without cutting off the person who is speaking. By actually encouraging them to talk more you allow a natural flow which will inevitably take the conversation in different directions; directions that will give you the chance to gain deeper understanding.
This eliminates the threat of you becoming a non-listener who "drifts" in conversation. Be aware that eyes (glancing elsewhere or no eye contact) and body language (arms folded, yawning, etc.) can create or amplify feelings of resistance and boredom. An empathetic listener remains engaged by giving feedback and driving the conversation forward with open-ended questions (questions that can not be answered with a simple yes or no).
Always remember that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is because we are supposed to do more listening than we do talking. A little (genuine) concern in your listening efforts will go a long way and pay big dividends in your personal and professional relationships.
Gian Fiero is a speaker and author who lectures throughout the country.