Are You Listening?

Are you listening?Good listening is like driving a car – we like to think that we are better at it than other people on the road, but this is rarely true. Most of us do not really listen when someone else is speaking. This inability to listen well can affect our relationships at work and so makes us less effective.

For most of us our lack of listening skills started in childhood, where the focus was on encouraging us to talk and express ourselves. This means that for many adults communication is seen as a combination of speaking and then waiting to speak again – not actually listening. Our brains focus on thinking about what we should or want to say next, not on what the other person is saying to us.

However, even if we do listen, simply focusing on the words the other person is saying is still not enough to make us really good listeners. The words people use form only seven percent (approximately) of the message they are communicating. Listening for the way in which the words are said (called the "tone") and looking for body language signals (also called non-verbal language) play a role in effective listening.

But even when we focus on the speaker’s tone and on observing their body language signals we still do not have all the information, as beneath the surface of these overt communication signals are the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. These are often hidden and so we refer to this as the communications “iceberg”. Yet these hidden thoughts and feelings are often the most valuable part of the communication as understanding them allows us to truly understand the meaning of the speaker.

It therefore follows that if we can improve our ability to detect the actual meaning behind the speaker’s words (how they are really feeling) then we will significantly improve our communication effectiveness at work. This is what we mean when we talk about "deep listening". But how can we listen deeply?

The first step is that you must stop focusing on your own internal noise, the thoughts and the “voice” in your head that we all have, and instead focus intensely on the person speaking. One technique to help you do this is to consciously focus on your breathing. This changes your physiology and so reduces the internal noise allowing the speaker’s message to be heard.

Next you must demonstrate an interest in, and an appreciation of, the speaker. This means suspending any judgmental thoughts you may be having about the speaker or the topic they are talking about and listening with a true open mind. This willingness to be open will be picked up by the speaker and creates a sense of rapport between you. This makes the speaker feel more comfortable and as a result two very interesting things often occur. Firstly, the speaker will open up and reveal more information to you than before and secondly, because they don’t feel threatened, they will often be able to communicate their message more clearly.

Finally, when the speaker has stopped talking, you should first feedback what you think they meant before communicating what you want to say. This feedback checks that you have completely understood what they were trying to say and prevents you from making wrong assumptions. Your feedback should focus on what you sensed at the deeper level (i.e. how you think they feel) and not be simply a summary, assertion of fact or judgemental comment on what they have said.

You will need to practice these three steps, particularly the third step, as deep listening is not an easy skill to master. However, if followed correctly, deep listening will have a significant positive impact on the effectiveness of your relationships and your verbal communications at work.