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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

L is for listening

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak." Epictetus

According to the International Listening association, listening is “ the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or non-verbal messages.” Listening is an essential part of communication, but we are seldom taught how to really listen effectively to another person.

There are five stages of listening : receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating and finally responding. Listening to reply however is the standard way that most people communicate. Instead of really paying attention to what the other person is saying, we are already subconsciously thinking about what we want to say in response and therefore our interaction with the other person, and subsequent understanding is not as good as it could be.

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen R. Covey

There is a big difference between listening and hearing. Hearing is a sense – it happens when sound hits our ears and involves the processing of sound in the brain. It is a passive physical process. Listening, on the other hand, is an action we consciously take. When we actively listen, we go beyond simply hearing words by giving our attention to what is being said to discover their meaning and intent.

When we listen, we do so for many different reasons. There are four different types of listening that differ according to what your goal as a listener is.

The four types of listening are appreciative, empathic, comprehensive, and critical listening.

Appreciative listening when you are listening for enjoyment e.g. to music or to people e.g. motivational speakers, comedians

Empathic or mindful listening where you try to step into the speaker’s shoes to get a better understanding of their perspective to show mutual concern. You are usually more ‘present’ and paying better attention.

Comprehensive listening, where you are listening to understand or listening to comprehend the message that is being sent e.g. when you are watching the news, listening to a lecture, or getting directions from someone. It is an active process which requires concentration and often requires participation e.g. taking notes of or evaluating the speaker’s ideas and their supporting evidence.

Critical listening is listening to evaluate the content of all parts of the message by analysing it, and evaluating what you hear. When engaging in critical listening, you are also critically thinking; making mental judgments based on what you see, hear, and read to decide if the information is valid e.g. when you are working out the pros and cons of a purchase, or a difficult decision.

"There are some people who could hear you speak a thousand words, and still not understand you. And there are others who will understand — without you even speaking a word." By Yasmin Mogahed

Depending upon the context of a situation, there are also different styles of listening which can be interchangeable depending upon the nature and context of the situation.

A listening style is “a set of attitudes and beliefs about listening ” (Kory Floyd)

There are four different styles of listening: People – Oriented, Action – Oriented, Content – Oriented, and Time – Oriented. People often have a dominant style but can adjust to the current situation.

People- Oriented. If you are a person – oriented listener you are able to “tune into people’s emotions, feelings, and moods” (Graham Bodie and Debra Worthington). You relate more to relationship building when listening to someone communicate with you and try to find common interests with the other person.

An action- oriented listener values clear, organized, and messages and would most likely notice errors and inconsistencies throughout a presentation.

Individuals who have a content- oriented listening style favour complex, challenging, technical information and will listen to all the facts before forming any sort of judgments.

An example of a time- oriented listener would be a doctor in an emergency situation, they need to get to the crux of the matter as quickly as possible and are not so concerned with details in order to use their time efficiently and treat patients in priority order.

If we want to be able to have meaningful connections, then we owe it to ourselves and to those around us to cultivate our listening skills.

There are a variety of barriers to listening and hearing the intent behind words. A barrier is simply anything that is physically or philologically hindering you from recognizing, understanding, and accurately interpreting the message that you are receiving. When you understand potential barriers to effective listening it is easier to pinpoint where your weaknesses are and take the steps necessary to reduce or overcome them to make you a better listener.

We are bombarded with information every waking hour so it is not surprising that there are going to be times where we experience information overload. Sometimes it is because we have so much information coming at us and we become overwhelmed so start to find ourselves tuning out or it could be because we cannot keep track of statistics, information etc

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.” Simon Sinek

A “me-centred” attitude is a huge impediment to good listening. When we are absorbed in our own thoughts and concerns it is difficult to focus on what someone else is saying.

Extraneous noises (phones ringing, doors banging, etc) can cause us to become distracted when listening or even our own physical needs, becoming hungry, needing the loo etc

It is difficult to listen to someone whose ideas you don’t agree with or who you are triggered by emotionally. It can be easy to allow personal prejudices or assumptions to distract us from keeping an open mind to the validity of some points in a message regardless of speaker.

Other people are full of new information and perspectives; if we listen fully, they may end up changing the way we currently think and feel; we should be open minded enough to have the courage to give them that chance. It begs the question what are we afraid of if we are not prepared to listen openly to the ideas and opinions of those who think differently to ourselves even if it only serves to clarify our own thoughts.

I draw my inspiration from all sorts of sources because I believe everyone has a voice and we can learn from everyone. For me it is about developing a growth mindset and being open and valuing the ability of everyone to make positive contributions, it challenges my thinking and makes me reflect on things I come across, which I don’t think weakens my personal beliefs rather it shapes and strengthens them as it forces me to think about how they tie in with my own personal values and gives me a better sense of connection with others.

"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk." Doug Larson

Most people speak at a rate of 125 words per minute. As a listener we are able to filter 700 words a minute; because we can process more words than we actually hear, a mental lag can occur and we can find ourselves stopping listening or drifting in and out. (To overcome this and keep alert and engaged it is a good idea to mentally summarize what is being said from time to time)

So, bearing all the above in mind, what are the components of active, engaged listening to understand and how can we improve our listening skills?

Some suggestions are:

Paying full attention by looking at the person talking to you; notice their eye contact and body language, their tone of voice as well as the content of what they are saying e.g. put your phone down and don’t keep looking at the time or to see what others re doing.

"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time."

M. Scott Peck

Listen with your body by physically turning towards the person who is talking, lean in, make eye contact, smile, nod, etc when appropriate.

"Every word has consequences. Every silence, too." Jean Paul Sartre

Don’t interrupt or start talking over someone; listen fully and wait until they have completely finished to ask questions or add your thoughts and perhaps wait to offer advice until it is asked for.

When responding to what has been said, be honest and respectful in your responses, i.e. remember to talk and listen in the ways that you would want to be talked or listened to.

Don’t ‘one-up’ the speaker i.e. jump in to relate how you had an even more fun moment than the person speaking or conversely a far worse negative experience. When we try to ‘one-up’ others, it gives the message that we’re only paying attention to them insofar as they provide an opportunity for us to talk about ourselves and this will not build a meaningful connection with someone.

Be careful about shifting the emphasis to yourself by relating a similar story to show that you understand. It’s not always a bad listening habit to convey your empathy in this way, but it shouldn’t be an automatic response to someone because it draws away from the other person’s feelings to your own, which may not be the same as your experiences are never exactly the same as someone else’s. This is not to say that sometimes people can’t benefit from hearing that the listener has experienced similar things.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Bryant McGill

If and when appropriate, ask for more information if you don’t fully understand a scenario or how someone is thinking or feeling about something. Be careful to temper your questions by what you think the other person would be willing to share with you. Repeating back what you think the speaker is saying in different words will help you understand better; it will also let the speaker know that you’re trying to understand and you’re paying full attention.

The hardest part of all in active listening is not being judgmental or jumping to conclusions before you have heard everything

When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

Although listening to words is important, listening is so much more than hearing; it’s what happens when we not only open our ears, but also open our minds, and sometimes our hearts, to another person.

"The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said"

Peter Drucker

You really hear someone when you look at their body language etc

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." Karl A. Menniger

Any good relationship requires reciprocation in communication. If you’re being talked at without being listened to in return, or if you’re the one doing all the talking and are not listening then you are not making an authentic or optimal connection with the other person .

"Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer." Ed Cunningham

Speaking well and being a good listener go hand in hand and fosters meaningful relationships with those around you. Learning better listening skills is a worthwhile process because people around you will feel more supported and understood and you will be able to communicate better with them too.

"LISTEN and SILENT are spelled with the same letters....think about it".

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

What are some of the things that are obstacles to you listening effectively?

What tendencies do you have that impede your ability to listen effectively?

What practical strategies can you put in place to develop better listening skills?

If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are some links to get you started:

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