Have you ever been engaged in a conversation where the person you were speaking to was focusing their attention on different objects in the room, perhaps checking their watch, or even worse glancing at their cell phone every few minutes. The feeling you were left with was that whatever you were saying was not heard or valued. On the other hand, if someone has attentively listened to you and given you their full attention while you were speaking, you were given the totally opposite impression of feeling validated and appreciated.
Many people struggle to be effective listeners. And yet, listening is one of the most basic and powerful skills that we utilize both in our personal relationships as well as in business or in the helping professions. As a nurse and mental health/grief counselor, I have had the opportunity of honing my ability to listen effectively. In this post, I will share some of the most valuable insights I have gained over the years.
1. Pay Attention to body language, your own as well as the person you are listening to. A large percentage of communication is nonverbal. The most popular study indicates that 93% of our interactions are communicated by nonverbal means, such as body language and tone of voice. Pay attention to eye contact and use it effectively, however, don't use it so intensely that the other person feels like you are staring them down. Employ an open and attentive body posture. Pay attention to your facial expression. In the same way, take note of the other person's body cues. For example, if they say they are fine, but have a worried facial expression, you might need to explore things further. Hear what is not being said.
2. Be Patient. Some people have difficulty expressing their thoughts effectively, perhaps due to nervousness, lack of confidence or self worth, or they may just talk at a slow pace. Avoid jumping in and finishing sentences. Don't interrupt (this should go without saying). Don't offer unsolicited advice or try and "fix" their situation.
3. Be attentive. Give the individual your full attention. Don't jump ahead to think about what you will say next. Don't allow distractions in the room to hijack your attention. Don't fiddle with your phone or nervously click a pen.
4. Clarify the other person's thoughts and intentions. Don't assume you can read their mind. When things are not clear, don't hesitate to try and fully understand. You might say, "I heard you say...., did I get that right?" or "did you mean...." or It sounds like...., is that right?" or "help me understand."
5. Don't be afraid of silence. If you are talking to an introvert like myself, remember that they need time to process ideas internally before speaking. Just because they are not speaking, does not mean that their brains are not actively engaged.
6. Use encouraging verbal prompts. "Tell me more." "keep going,", "uh huh." or "mmm."
7. Use empathy. Try and put yourself into the other's shoes. Imagine what you would be feeling if you were in their situation.
Let me conclude with some ancient wisdom: "You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This quote is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Epictetus (55-135 A.D.). This piece of wisdom resonates just as clearly today as it did in ancient times, reminding us of the foundational value of being a good listener.