Estimated Lesson Time: 7 minutes
Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, was known as one of the greatest active listeners of all time. One of his greatest contributions to the field of mental health was his discovery that in order to understand and effectively treat a patient, a doctor had to listen to his or her patients. He further explained that communication may be with direct words, with actions, or in some other disguised manner whose code is very difficult to decipher. Active listening is not just a key element of psychoanalysis, but it is the key element of successful communication.
You have most likely heard someone say something such as, “I know you can hear me, but are you listening to me?” Unless one is hearing impaired, or in a completely soundproof environment, he or she is hearing. Hearing is using our brain subconsciously to process sounds, whereas listening is focusing attention on the sounds being heard. Active listening is more effective and more interactive than just listening. It involves more physical, mental, and/or verbal interaction. Active listening should be used in place of listening in all situations: one-on-one, group presentations, personal, and professional.
So why is active listening so important? Three main reasons:
- Active listening is needed to get the true message. Listening to select words or phrases, and not interpreting those words correctly can distort a message that can lead to poor decisions.
- Active listening can dramatically increase retention of the material. Active listening makes the material easier to recall.
- Active listening helps build rapport with the speaker. Call it being polite, common courtesy, or showing sincere interest in the speaker, speakers appreciate active listening. Active listeners are often viewed as great conversationalists, even though they may say very little.
In addition, active listening has other far-reaching effects that benefit both the listener and the speaker.
People tend to not listen for one of many reasons. They may be bored, distracted, or just not interested in the subject. The speaker’s delivery of the message, the content, or the environment can cause boredom, distraction, or lack of interest. In any case, providing you can hear the words being spoken, you can choose to listen actively.
Here are several suggestions to help you become a more active listener. Some of these apply only to one-to-many type presentations, as in the case of a speaker addressing a large group, and some suggestions apply only to one-on-one situations, as in talking with a friend or business associate. Most of these suggestions, however, apply to any situation.
- Clear your mind. Anytime you have many things on your mind you should write them down and forget about them until you are ready to deal with them.
- Make the message relevant to you. Perhaps the main reason people do not listen is because they really just do not care about the message. If you are in a situation where not listening to the message would be disadvantageous, then convince yourself why actively listening to the message is important. Active listening begins with wanting to listen.
- Listen more than you talk. The common illustration is that each of us has two ears and one mouth—use them in that proportion.
- Make good eye contact. Look at someone when they are speaking to you. Good eye contact is not psychotic gazing, but frequently looking directly into the speaker’s eyes with several breaks.
- Take notes. Taking notes, even jotting down keywords or phrases only, can be a great way to help focus your attention on the content being presented.
- Don’t finish sentences. When we think we know what the other person is going to say, we tend to complete their sentences for them, either out loud or in our heads. This is a common way to alter the speaker’s true message. When finishing a speaker’s sentence for him out loud, he may find it too awkward to tell you that was not what he was going to say, and just “yeah” you instead. When finishing a speaker’s sentence in your head, your version will stick in your memory longer than the speaker’s version.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. The typical mind is capable of working many times faster than the average person can speak. This is often the main reason for “drifting” or taking the nearest mental exit. This is also why listeners tend to start forming conclusions rather than carefully listening to the words being spoken. To illustrate, on one of my favorite TV shows a riddle was presented: two coins make 30 cents, and one of them is not a nickel. When others hear this riddle, they jump to the conclusion that neither coin is a nickel, even though the riddle clearly states “one of them” is not a nickel. Solving riddles is a great way to build your active listening skills.
- Respond verbally and physically. Your response to the speaker’s message can have a great effect on the message itself. For example, if someone begins telling you a story and you begin to do the “pee-pee dance,” the speaker will most likely cut their story short. Respond physically to a speaker using your body language to tell the speaker that you are interested in what he or she is saying by nodding your head or making the facial expressions that correspond to the speaker’s message. Verbal responses that let the speaker know you are interested can include the occasional “right,” “I see,” “uh-huh,” or other similar word, phrase or sound. The key here is not to overdo these physical, or verbal responses or you will distract the speaker or worse appear fake.
- Ask questions. Ask questions based on the content. This is a great way to show the speaker that you are interested, as well as a great way for you, the listener, to absorb more of the information. “Why” questions often make great follow-up questions.
- Visualize. Visualize what the speaker is saying. Create a movie in your head using colorful or outrageous characters and props.
- Restate. “So what you are saying is...” is a great technique to both express your interest and actively listen. When you restate what the speaker has just said, be sure not to use the same words because then you are just repeating what was said and not restating.
- Summarize. If appropriate, summarize what the speaker had said when they are done speaking.
What is the speaker really saying? Active listening involves being more attentive to the words, tone, and the body language the speaker is using to deliver her message. It is about focusing your complete attention on the message while involving both your mind and body. Being a good active listener is the first major step to being a great communicator.
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Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):
- Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
- Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
- What do you admire most about this person? (success biography days)