Most of us can make our point without too much difficulty. Any time Faculty Staff Assistance Program counselors work with two or more people, both are usually expert at describing everything that is wrong with the other person. But it is rare to find someone who truly knows how to listen. Why is this so difficult? Most of us don't listen, especially when we are involved in an argument, because we are forming our response, waiting to pounce on the speaker the minute they take a breath. We may be waiting to display our brilliance and make our point by taking things out of context. We may also be listening for cues so that we can direct the conversation in our direction. None of these actions communicates to the listener that we are truly interested in hearing them, thereby communicating respect. People often seem shocked when the conversation ends after utilizing these "half-listening" techniques.
Another "conversation ender" is our desire to jump right in and fix the problem. This difference in communication style has been spelled out very clearly in Debra Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand" where gender differences in communication styles are described. As she points out, sometimes people want to talk just to talk. Talking is therapeutic, even when an "answer" is not forthcoming.
Listening is not easy and requires a certain set of skills. An active listener:
- concentrates on what is being said (doesn't read, shuffle papers or otherwise non-verbally communicate a lack of interest)
- listens to all facts and tries not to interrupt until the speaker has concluded his/her statements. When someone is talking for a long period of time, it is sometimes helpful to either take notes or ask them to stop so that you can feed back to them what you have heard.
- listens for key words of interest on which to comment and ask questions (communicating that I am really interested and want to hear more or better understand what you are saying.)
- is objective; hears people as they are, not the way you'd like them to be.
- holds back personal judgments until the speaker has presented his/her ideas.
Listening requires courage because we may hear things that we'd rather not (especially about ourselves). Active listening means staying in the "here and now", focusing on the current issues and not getting sidetracked on what happened previously or the way we'd like things to be.
Where the magic starts to occur in a conversation is when you are able to let the speaker know that you are really paying attention to them. How does one do this? By acknowledging what you heard the other person say. This can be accomplished in different ways:
Acknowledging what you heard is in no way agreeing with what you heard. The reason that many of us skip this step is because we believe that if we state what we heard the person say, then we have agreed with them. Providing feedback simply communicates that I respect you and am showing that respect by trying hard to understand your point, even if I do disagree with it.
There is nothing as powerful as being understood by another person, especially when it involves something important and entails an emotional content. The above statements are ways to make that happen.