The Gift of Active Listening
When was the last time you gave the gift of "active listening" to someone who was sharing their thoughts or opinions with you?
Have you noticed how many people you’ve been talking to lately that don’t seem to be connecting to what you have to say? They don’t seem present and are highly distracted by other seemingly more important tasks like checking their phone for the latest social media post.
What does it feel like when you’re in that situation?
When it happens to me, I feel disrespected, which doesn’t feel so great!
What is Active Listening?
There’s a big difference between hearing and truly listening and engaging with someone in a conversation.
Hearing is a function of physical sound waves and noise that our bodies process naturally. It’s instinctive and doesn’t require any effort on our part for it to work 24/7.
Listening, on the other hand, is a cultivated skill.
It requires learning how to focus on what a person is saying to you, correctly comprehending the meaning behind it, then retaining that information so you can provide an appropriate response.
Part of the challenge that people have in doing this in today’s world is that there are more and more things working against us in that process than ever before.
Why is it so difficult?
In an article called “Active Listening: Why is it so difficult?”, the author explains it like this. “We think four times faster than a person can speak, which means we need only about 25% of our mental capacity to hear the content of the message. That means we have 75% of our minds free, so our mind wanders. But, the biggest difficulty in listening is noise”. https://instituteod.com/active-listening-why-difficult/
They mean “Psychological Noise”.
Part of it is that we get waylaid by the other stuff going on in our minds, like personal problems, whether we like the person we’re talking to or not, or the to-do lists we’re behind on.
The other kind of noise has been a relatively recent development. That’s the noise that electronics bring us via computers, TVs, tablets, and phones, constant social media interaction, software apps that cater to our every need, instant news feeds and so much more.
When you think about it, it’s literally a miracle we’re able to focus on our own thoughts long enough to complete what’s essential for our health and well-being in a typical day.
Why is Active Listening important?
Truly active listening, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to “hear something with thoughtful attention and to give consideration”.
That’s when you give others enough respect to say “I’ll listen because you’re important to me”, regardless of whether you have any true personal interest in the subject they want to discuss.
There are plenty of husband and wife jokes around that play on the concept of “selective hearing”, where a spouse only hears what they want to hear and tunes out the rest.
But, not listening to someone trying to communicate with you, whether it’s at a workplace or home, can have real repercussions.
First, it devalues that person’s right to voice their truth or opinion.
Over time, a person who has repeatedly been ignored when communicating can develop low self-esteem, depression, and feelings of isolation.
Feeling valued is a core human need.
Communication is our most important tool in reaching out to others to feel connected. But, it takes two to create that connection, and each party has a role as an active listener.
Research has shown that active listening as a part of supported company culture can improve productivity in a work environment.
People feel like they are a team.
Listening allows them to exchange creative ideas with co-workers. Managers can benefit as well by improving systems and processes after listening to issues, solutions, and suggestions from their staff.
At home, listening can go a long way in helping avoid or resolving conflicts between family members or spouses.
The key is that active listening says “I’m willing to listen to your perspective and consider other options”.
How can I be better at it?
To be a truly active listener, experts suggest the following:
1. During a conversation, do your best to control your thoughts and emotions and focus entirely on the other person.
The best way to do this is to limit your distractions. Turn off electronics or anything else that might interrupt or distract you.
2. Listen without judging.
As humans, we tend to instantly pop up with responses before the person has even finished their comment. Stay neutral and allow them to complete their thought before you respond.
3. Be fully present.
Keep your focus on the here and now. Often, we tend to pull things from the past, and even fears about the future, into our discussions when they really aren’t relevant. So, keep your mind and heart in the present and focused on the person you’re engaging with.
4. Be alert for what’s not being said.
If you’re talking to someone directly in front of you, pay some attention to the visual cues that person is communicating. Active listening means listening to all the messaging coming through like body language, tone, and eye contact. If something seems off, ask for clarification. Sometimes people are shy or aren’t sure about how to convey a point. If you can bring it to light lovingly and patiently, then great!
5. Calm your emotions.
Any communication should be done with emotions checked at the door. It’s hard to truly listen or convey something when you, or the person you are interacting with, are angry or frustrated. Staying calm can ratchet down unwanted reactions and keep the doors of communication open in the most difficult of conversations.
It can be hard sometimes to remember these rules when you’re hot under the collar about something you feel passionate about. But, people will remember when they’ve been treated with respect when they know you are actively listening.
Now that you know that it’s a skill you can hone and improve on, how can you use it to positively improve the relationships that mean the most to you today, tomorrow, and beyond?
If you give it the attention it’s due, I think you’ll be surprised by the positive dividends you’ll receive each, and every, day of your life!
So until next time, stay safe, stay healthy and stay strong!