Listening well is much more difficult than it appears. According to research we drop out of a conversation every 12 to 18 seconds to process what people are saying and we remember what we think about what is said rather that what is actually said. It becomes all too easy to start thinking about what has been said. We then end up with two conversations; the one with the other person and the one going on in our head. Thinking is a big distraction to good listening and includes;
- Wanting to make a response. We are so used to conversations being a back and forth process that we naturally start thinking to work out what we are going to say in response.
- Making judgements about what has been said.
- We are very selective in what we hear, focusing on what is salient for us, not necessarily for the person we are listening to.
It is easy to think that it’s what we say that is important in a conversation; the words we use. But research shows that the words we use, the tone of our voice and our non-verbal behaviours (body language and expressions), all contribute when we communicate. When these elements do not match, we are less likely to trust what is being said and the person we are listening to.
Good listening practices include;
Not interrupting - as the speaker tells their story. By offering that space to be heard without interruption of any sort, we give the speaker the opportunity to hear their own words. We constantly make sense of things by telling our story to ourselves. This is an opportunity to tell it to another person. Not interrupting in general is good practice.
Listening to understand -in our everyday conversations we often listen to respond, not to understand. Often we are so keen to get our point of view across that we take the first opportunity to jump in and make what we see as our contribution to keeping the conversation going. In good listening, we abandon this habit, focus on the speaker and maintain a sense of curiosity.
Reflecting is replaying what the speaker has said. Reflecting is usually done using the same words used by the speaker and is a shorter version, sometimes only the last few words or phrase. Reflecting shows that you have heard what the speaker has said and can be used as a prompt for the speaker to say more.
Paraphrasing what the speaker has said. Paraphrasing uses different words to those used by the speaker. It lets the speaker know that you have heard what was said and that you are trying to understand. Some advocate starting paraphrasing from the listener’s perspective. For example, “I hear that you are saying…”. Others believe that this is unnecessary and sounds false and would phrase it as, “You are saying…”. It all depends on what works for you and what you feel is most authentic.
Summarising what the speaker has said in your words to make sure that you have understood correctly. Summarising usually involves condensing what the speaker has said and is often used near the end of a conversation to pull together what has been said in a succinct way. Clarifying is used by the listener to make sure that what has been said by the speaker has been fully understood. Clarifying reinforces that the speaker is interested in what the speaker has to say and can include reflecting and paraphrasing. It will include asking questions of the speaker.