Effective Listening Skills

Think Success by Jayaram V

by Jayaram V

The following essay is reproduced with publisher's permission from the book Think Success by Jayaram V.


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Are you a good listener? Do you listen attentively with concentration? Do you listen quietly, reflectively, and unassumingly, without critical and judgmental attitude? When you do speak to others, are you motivated by a desire to prove that they are wrong, or you think you know better than they do? How do you respond when you listen to ideas and opinions you dislike? Do you listen at all when others speak?

These questions are worth examining to know honestly whether you are a good listener. If you want to know from others about your listening skills, you should ask your spouse, a close friend, son, or daughter for their honest opinion and they will surely give you one.

Many people think that they listen well, whereas in reality they do not. They take their listening skills for granted and do not think that listening is as important as speaking. In life, we listen selectively. The more familiar a person is, the least likely you will listen to him or her attentively, unless the situation is serious. If you want to be a good listener, you have to cultivate good listening skills and become an effective listener. It requires effort and changing of a few listening habits. It is not sufficient, if you occasionally listen with full attention. You have to do it regularly to enrich your life and benefit from your communication with others.

When I newly joined as an assistant sales executive in a private biscuit manufacturing company, my immediate boss made sure that I spoke effectively with my colleagues, dealers and customers. He closely monitored my speeches and presentations, and told me where I needed improvement. For him not being able to talk forcefully in the presence of others was like losing a grim battle in the life of a salesexecutive. Unless I stood for myself and spoke confidently about my beliefs and convictions, he would ask how could I defend anything in life, stand for others in my team, or promote the products of the company.

My first boss taught me how to speak effectively and forcefully and counter any objections the customers raised, but he never told me anything about listening. He assumed that I was a good listener, since I obediently and passively  listened to him most of the time, or thought that I would learn it by myself with experience. In this regard, he was not much different from others.

People prefer talking rather than listening because talking gives them the false sense of control and authority. In their opinion speaking is the sure way to success. The same attitude is reflected in our culture and society. We remember the greatest speeches in the history of the world with nostalgia, but do not pay much attention to anyone who listened to others and facilitated a treaty or a peace charter.

Noise vs. silence

We celebrate noise, not silence. It is a fact. We do not celebrate silence because to celebrate anything we need noise. To enjoy an occasion, we have to shout, laugh, clap, jump, sing, dance, or set off fireworks. You cannot create all that thunder when you are silent. People like to be heard, understood, approved and appreciated through spoken words. Words give them the feeling of being alive and active. We use them to build relationships and fulfill our need for belongingness, recognition, approval and acceptance.

 We expect even God to speak to us in our language. The Vedas hold speech as divine and suggest that we can use the power of sounds to reach out to the gods of heaven and seek their favors. We use speech to express our deepest thoughts and feelings, assert our power and position, establish control and authority, protect and promote our desires and interests, or extend our zone of influence. We use it to improve our relationships or prove to others our skills and abilities.

When it comes to listening, we believe it is secondary and not as important. We may listen to others, but do it mostly to facilitate a conversation or extend social courtesy. For most people listening is a passive and inferior activity, and a even sign of weakness and submissiveness. As every child learns eventually, making appropriate noises attracts attention, sympathy, and even rewards from others. Hence, many people resort to speech to declare their presence, extend their influence or secure their aims. In the process, the virtues of listening are rarely appreciated, except in academic and professional fields.

The importance of listening

Good communicators know the value of listening. They will tell you that in communication listening is more important than even speaking. You learn it early in your education. If you do not listen to your teacher in the classroom and follow his lecture, you may make mistakes in your responses or will have to spend more time studying and understanding the same. Unfortunately, most of us do not remember this simple virtue later in life and are carried away by the charms of speech.

Effective listening has several advantages. Speaking exhausts you, whereas listening enriches you. A speaker betrays both his knowledge and ignorance, while a listener remains mysterious and eludes others' judgment. When you listen attentively, you increase your knowledge of people and situations and your chances of becoming likable, friendly, and agreeable. People prefer being in the company of sympathetic listeners rather than garrulous speakers. They want to be heard and understood, rather than lectured and dominated. Hence, they readily open their minds and hearts to those who are willing to listen to them.

Thus, active listening is the foundation of any good conversation. If you want to be friendly with others and increase your zone of influence, you must listen to them most of the time and speak only when necessary. Those who always speak run the risk of attracting unwanted public attention and even ridicule, whereas good listeners quietly mingle with strangers and find new friends. Listening helps you to know others, gather information and build relationships. It helps you in teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution, negotiations, team building, and problem solving.

Listening does not mean you have to agree with everything or submit to everyone's opinion. It only means you have to pay attention, show respect and listen with concentration. By listening actively and paying attention, you can change the tone and tenor of any conversation. When you listen attentively, others feel comfortable in your presence and open their hearts and minds.

Good listeners are enablers. They empower people. They facilitate conversation, promote understanding and diffuse tense situations. When you listen attentively, you can observe and understand others and develop a better insight into their behavior. When you speak your mind will be preoccupied with what you want to say next, whereas when you listen you have a better opportunity to relax, observe and stay with the moment.

Listening styles

Just as people differ in their thinking and behavior, there are also differences in the way they listen and react. Studies show that people use four different listening styles in their communication with others according to situation and their emotional states. While some people may show preference for particular listening styles, depending upon their needs and states of mind, most people use one or more of these in their communication.

1. Aggressive listening

 In aggressive listening, the listener listens selectively and judgmentally to attack the other person, further his agenda or find fault. The focus is solely upon what the listener wants to convey, or his demands and expectations, with an intention to dominate, hurt, or prevail upon the other person, with little consideration for the information coming from the other side. People who are in positions of authority, or those who are emotionally upset, angry, afraid or resentful, usually resort to aggressive listening. This attitude leaves the other person unhappy, intimidated or frustrated. In real life, aggressive listening may take place between a parent and an unhappy child, or between a resentful superior and his weak subordinates.

2. Defensive listening:

Defensive listening is also selective listening, in which a person perceives threat to one's selfesteem or pride even if there is none. As a result, the listener may interpret innocent remarks and general statements as personal attacks and feel victimized, offended or hurt. People who are sensitive, angry, or distrustful, or those who suffer from low selfesteem or persecution complex may engage in this type of listening as they feel repeatedly victimized and offended for intrinsic reasons and faulty interpretation. People who resort to defensive listening do not listen well as they try to protect and defend themselves against perceived threats even if there are none.

3. Passive listening

Passive listening is mechanical listening in which the listener listens rather passively without any reaction from his side either because he is complete agreement with it or because he is simply uninterested or indifferent. In passive listening it is difficult to know whether the other person has listened and understood the message or how it is interpreted. People may resort to this listening style, for various reasons from complete apathy to submissiveness. Passive listening is one way listening, which is not necessarily bad unless a person is engaged in an important conversation. People may resort to passive listening in social situations, where they do not want to attract attention themselves or make themselves vulnerable to criticism and controversy.

4. Active listening

Active listening is also known as reflective listening or effective listening. In active listening one listens with active engagement and reflective thinking, facilitating the communication as a two way process. It is the best listening style, where the participants listen actively and attentively, remaining in the present, and engage in the communication objectively, listening and speaking according to the situation. Active listeners listen with interest, with an open mind, and without any hidden agendas. They focus not only upon what is being said, but also upon the feelings and the people who are involved in the conversation. They use both their minds and hearts in the listening process, and respond appropriately neither to dominate nor to defend, but to know, learn and understand.

Improving your listening skills

Of the four listening styles, active listening style is the best. It leads to increased awareness, participation and better rapport. We can cultivate active listening skills with effort and become an active and effective listener. The following suggestions are useful in this regard.

1. Improve your thinking and attitude.

Your listening habits are a part of your personality and a reflection of your beliefs and attitude. If you have little respect for people, do not believe in them, or trust them, it reflects in your conversation and listening habits. If you are prone to speak rather than listen, you have to examine your beliefs and habitual thoughts. You have to pay attention to your own thoughts and attitudes when you speak to them. If you treat people as your equals, you earn their trust and confidence and facilitate a two way conversation.

Many are conditioned by social and cultural beliefs to speak rather than listen in social situations. While sometimes it is necessary to make your pitch or defend your position, in case of general conversations you should spend more time listening rather than just speaking about yourself. People are easily repulsed by those who are selfish and self-centered, and can see it coming even before you speak to them. Therefore, you must control your natural urge to dominate a conversation and let others participate in it. You can become a natural listener by being attentive, curios, openminded, inquisitive, patient and appreciative.

2. Improve your auditory memory.

 People differ with regard to how they store information in their minds. Some store it visually as images, some as sounds, some kinesthetically as feelings and emotions. Although, most information in the human mind is stored as images, some memory is also stored as sounds and feelings. You can improve your auditory memory through active listening, by paying attention to the sounds, voices and tonalities of the people who talk to you. It may also help you to notice subtle changes in people's voices and tones, and become intuitively aware of their feelings, emotions hidden intentions.

3. Control your mental noise and self-talk.

A calm and composed mind facilitates good listening experience. It is difficult to pay attention or listen when you are distracted or disturbed. One of the best ways to overcome distractions and mental noise during conversations is to make a conscious effort to stay in the present and establish eye contact. You should also learn to relax and be yourself in the presence of others. Studies show that relaxation, meditation, adequate rest, concentration and mindfulness improve your emotional states and perceptual ability.

4. Cultivate an open mind.

Many factors interfere with your listening. Prejudice, preconceived notions, selective perception, habitual thoughts, learned beliefs, acquired preferences and illogical thoughts act as mental barriers and prevent you not only from listening to others but also relating to the world and deal with it with maturity, understanding and objectivity. No one can enter a closed house. The same is true with the mind. With a closed mind, you cannot listen to others without imparting your own values and judgment.

Therefore, having an open mind is important for active listening. Some of the ways in which you can keep your mind open are not to prejudge people, counter your self-talk and inner chatter, not to rush into judgment, and not to go by surface thoughts. You should also learn to ask questions and seek clarifications whenever you are in doubt rather than making assumptions and drawing faulty conclusions without supporting evidence.

5. Listen with rapport and empathy.

Empathy means feeling the emotion behind the words you listen, and rapport means aligning yourself mentally and positively with the other person during communication. Both are important to active listening. With empathy, you can connect to the other person both at the mental and emotional level and improve your perception and understanding. With rapport, you can make your communication pleasant and harmonious. The two are like two invisible wires with which you can connect to others and establish a deeper communication that goes beyond words, gestures and social rituals. When you bring them into play, your become intuitively aware of the other person's hidden intentions. You can develop both by becoming genuinely interested in people and paying them attention with compassion and understanding.

6. Improve your verbal skills.

Language is a powerful barrier to effective communication. You can improve your communication skills by developing proficiency in both spoken and written language. It is also important how you use your language skills to communicate with others according to their level of proficiency, maturity and understanding. For example, you cannot communicate effectively with a lay person in a technical language, unless you know how to express the technical jargon in simple words.

Language also plays an important role in listening. You must possess, good vocabulary, idioms and native expressions, apart from familiarity with local and dialectical variations in accent and tonalities. Knowing more than one language increases your communication reach, while with larger vocabulary you can express as well as understand complex thoughts and concepts without ambiguity.

7. Practice active listening.

Active listening means listening actively with attention, respect, empathy, curiosity, and interest, without the compulsion to dominate others or defend yourself. In it, you listen not only to words and their meaning but also to the emotions and intentions involved in the communication. Studies show that many people cannot not remember or recollect much of what they listen, because they do not listen actively. Actively listening can greatly improve the quality of your relationships and communication. You can practice active listening with the help of the following suggestions.

1. Stay in the present by maintaining eye contact and paying attention to the facial expressions of the other person.

2. Keep an open mind, without rushing to judgments, and stay calm as you listen.

3. Try to be pleasant and friendly to establish rapport and facilitate ease of conversation.

4. When you listen, do not focus on what to say next but what the other person is communicating.

5. Let the other person know that you are listening, with an appropriate response such a smile, gentle nod, or "uh huh."

6. Do not interrupt the other person in the middle. Wait until he stops speaking.

7. Improve the conversation and the level of understanding with questions, clarifications or rephrasing what you just heard.

8. Avoid making any critical response to what you listen, unless it is requested.

9. Pay attention to the body language and nonverbal communication.

10. Listen for the ideas and the general drift of the conversation.

11. Let the other person know through your gestures and responses that you are genuinely interested in the conversation.

12. Avoid any facial expressions or body movements that show impatience, irritability, anger, or frustration.

13. Do not act as if you already know what the other person is going to say, or try to supply words for him to finish his statements.

14. Do not change the subject of the conversation on your own, unless the other person is ready.

15. Convey clearly what you understood and thank for the opportunity to speak to him. Active listening does not mean that you have to remain silent or passive in a conversation, or you have to be pretentious or tactful. Imagine you have spoken to someone for half an hour and the other person just listened without any response and left you wondering what happened. In active listening you listen as well as respond appropriately.

The purpose of active listening is not to listen merely or outdo the other person, but to improve the quality of your communication and remember much of what you listen. You may also engage in it to know and understand others and improve your relationship and rapport with them. Sometimes you may have to speak for yourself or even defend yourself, but it should be done selectively rather than habitually. Under normal circumstances, you should listen

Suggestions for Further Reading

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