The Fine Art of Listening

Can you hear me now?“I know you think you understand what you thought I said; but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  ~  Alan Greenspan

When you are sharing your thoughts, explaining your position, answering questions, or proposing ideas, don’t you want to be heard and effectively understood?  Well, actually, so does everyone else.  It seems to be a basic human drive or need to want to be heard and understood.  However, we haven’t been trained very well to listen for understanding.

In fact, in today’s hectic and sound byte society, given the incredible differences in our definition of words, I continue to be amazed if there is any real effective communication at all.

There really is a Fine Art of Listening.  And with good intention and practice on your part, you can learn to listen well for understanding.

First, what’s in the way of effective listening?

  • We tend to listen to the first sentence or two of what someone is saying and then busy ourselves with formulating our response to that, rather than listen to the rest.
  • We multitask.
  • We get “triggered” by a word or phrase that is used and then find ourselves immersed in old baggage thoughts that leave little room to hear the rest of what is said.
  • We think 600 to 1300 words a minute.  And usually speak 100 to 120 words a minute.  This leaves lots of time in our head to get lost in our own, often “triggered” thoughts.
  • We often interpret what “they mean by that is…” and again get triggered by that.
  • We may be distracted by any number of things going on inside our heads or in our vicinity.

Again, given all this, I continue to be amazed that our communication works as good as it does.

So, what can you do about this?

  • First, make a commitment to really hear with intention of understanding what they intend to mean.  This is not your interpretation of what they mean.  This is what they actually intend to mean.  It may not have even been what they actually said.  It is what they intend to mean.  It amazes me the arguments that arise when someone insists that you meant X when you said Y and intended Y.  And they want to fight to be right insisting that you actually meant something you did not.  That sets you up, for not only being misunderstood, but now you are also not believed, regarding your actual intention.  Ever feel like “Why bother talking, if they are going to tell you what you actually mean?”  It is useful to discern if you unwittingly do this in your interaction with others.
  • Next, actually stop everything else and actually look at and listen to someone when they are speaking.
  • Paraphrase back to them what you heard and ask if that is what they meant.
  • Ask questions for clarity.
  • Especially ask for their definition of what that word or phrase means TO THEM.
  • Remember most people can only speak 100 to 120 words per minute, while you think 600 to 1300 words a minute.  Keep your thoughts swirling around the subject, mostly about really hearing them, what questions to ask, as example to ensure you understand them.
  • Don’t think about your response until after they are done speaking.  You can say something like, “that’s interesting, let me think a moment about what I think/or how I feel about that.”
  • Notice if you hear yourself think, “This means that….”  That phrase is often what gets us into trouble.  Don’t assume you know.  Ask what they mean.
  • You can practice with a friend exercises in listening to the point that you can parrot back a whole paragraph of what they said, word for word.  If you think you have to say the exact same words back to someone, you listen differently.  Make this fun.
  • When in actual conversation, para-phrase back to the speaker asking for their agreement that you understand what they mean.  And you keep doing that until they agree you understand them.  You will be amazed when doing this exercise at the number of times they’ll respond with, “Well, almost, but you forgot…” or “No, actually it is more like this.”  Just keep practicing, it is worth it.
  • Actually focus and concentrate your attention on the speaker.

Some people operate from if you understand me and what I want here, that means you AGREE with me.  And if you don’t agree, that means you don’t understand.

First look at yourself to see if you hold that opinion.  It will not serve you.  Do yourself the service of discarding that notion.  Active listening habits will help you handle situations where the other person keeps trying to give you more information, trying desperately to “make you understand,” because you don’t agree.  In this case, just parrot back to them what they have said, ask if you understand what the mean or want.  And when you have their agreement–and only when you have their agreement that you understand them–you can say, “I understand you and what you want here; but I disagree.  And if you choose, this is the time when you can ask them to try to understand your point of view, the same way you have worked to understand theirs.  You, also, are not necessarily asking for their agreement, just their understanding.

It will also amaze you to discover the number of times people will co-operate with you even as you disagree, so long as they feel heard and understood.  This active listening skill is truly helpful when dealing with negative customer issues.

Spend at least some time each day learning active listening skills.  Remind yourself of how important it is to you to be heard and understood.  Then decide to honor that important human drive in others.  Develop your capacity in The Fine Art of Listening.  It will serve you well.  Spend twice the time listening as you do talking, and see where this takes you.

A suggestion for further reading is Steven Covey’s, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  The chapter on “First Seek to Understand and Then to be Understood.” is highly useful in your pursuit of The Fine Art of Listening.