Effective Listening

Effective listening (sometimes known as critical listening) is a multi-sensory skill.

Beyond using our ears to hear, it is equally important to use our eyes to observe body language and use our emotions to sense underlying messages.

Being sensitized to all the subtleties of messages ensures they are understood the way they are intended.

Before speaking we need to think through what we are going to say, and then relay an understandable message. Equally, we have the responsibility when we listen to receive, process and respond appropriately.

The best way to listen is through active listening. It has four steps. They are:

1. Hear the message

For effective listening distractions need to be minimized. Also, focus on what a person is communicating. Carefully listening equips us to respond appropriately.

Listen to the words and what they mean. Observe body language and voice. This helps us become fully engaged in the complete message of the conversation. A person’s body language and voice indicate a wide array of emotions such as whether he or she is happy, sad, relaxed, stressed, tired or energized.

2. Evaluate the message

First, when evaluating (attempting to interpret) a message try to be aware of your personal filters and how they are biasing what you are hearing. By understanding that your interpretation of a message may be different than what was intended you can ask clarifying questions. Think through; “what is said, and what is meant.” This will improve your effective listening.

Next, there are wide arrays of clear, as well as subtle messages in conversations. Many of these messages are inconsequential. Others are important.

Unspoken communication can be as important, and sometimes more important, than the actual words and phrases used in many conversations. Visual signals and voice inflections are clues of underlying messages (metamessages) that the other person is sending out.

To listen at this level we need to empathize with others. Empathy is an offshoot of Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is being aware of our own emotions and seeing the links between our thoughts, feelings and reactions. This self-awareness also helps us recognize our own strengths and weaknesses.

Reading the emotions of others using empathy is similar to interpreting our own emotions. It is looking for the connections between reactions and stimulus. Another important component in message evaluation is intuition. Intuition can be described as a useful insight created by many previous experiences connecting in an entirely new way instantaneously.

When a person’s voice inflections and/or body language aren’t in alignment with his or her words, our empathy and/or intuition sends a signal to our brain. If these voice variations and/or body language are clearly disconnected with the words, then we recognize this on a conscious level.

Other times, the words and visual signals seem to be in alignment, but something else is bothering us at a subconscious level. This is frequently because the body language and other visual cues along with voice changes that are flowing out are so little that we can’t see or hear them, but our Emotional Intelligence and/or intuition can.

Our perception is sensitized to the subtlest of signals. It sends a signal (sometimes called a red flag) to our brain telling us that something isn’t quite right.

Some people have good natural empathy and intuition. They are able to decipher the underlying messages in many conversations by being in tune with the subtle signals that are leaking out from others.

Many of us though, receive the signals in our brains from our feelings, but haven’t taught ourselves how to interpret and use this information effectively.

3a. Probe the message

Ask probing questions about any area(s) of the conversation still unclear to you to ensure your have effective listening. One technique to help you probe is known as Reflective Listening. Reflective listening is paraphrasing what another person has said if you are unclear as to the meaning or intention of a comment.

By paraphrasing what the person said you send two positive signals. First, you make sure that you understand the meaning of the statement. And second, you signal to a person that you are engaged in the conversation.

3b. Understand the message

Understanding comes from listening to the message, evaluating it, then probing areas unclear to you (or are possible disconnects). Understanding also comes from being sensitive to body language and the emotional state of the person.

4. Respond to the message

After you have a good understanding of the message you will be well equipped to communicate back with your message in the way you intend.

Once you respond, listen to the person’s response. Do his or her comments and/or questions indicate understanding? Is this person’s body language communicating engagement? Or, is there a potential disconnect?

If you sense a disconnect or misunderstanding, ask probing questions to uncover any issues. Then clarify as required.

In Conclusion

Effective listening is a critical listening skill. It includes four steps:

1. Hear the message
2. Evaluate the message
3. Probe and understand the message
4. Respond to the message

Practicing is the best way for improving listening skills. It takes time, but the rewards are better relationships with less bumps in the road.

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