Mark Twain said, “If we were to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”
But having a set of ears, even ones that work well, does not necessarily mean that we are listening. Perhaps we’re just hearing noise, vibrations that add to the cornucopia of sound around us: airplanes, satellite radio, the dishwasher, a siren down the street, the computer signalling another email, the iPod signalling another Facebook message, the cellphone signalling another text.
“Most of us have been gifted with the ability to hear,” says management expert Don Anderrson, “but few of us have taken hearing and refined it into the art of listening. We tend to be defensive when we hear. Most of the time we’re expecting people to say things that fit into our categories so we’re really not as open to hearing what they’re saying as we could be.”
Defensive? Well, geez, I wouldn’t have to be so gosh-darned defensive if everyone just understood what I was saying and agreed with me all the time, dagnabbit! Oh, and laughed when I said something funny, because I totally crack myself up!
Seriously though, this is something we can all work on because, according to research done by MindTools, we remember just 25-50% of what we hear. And the quality of our relationships – at home, school and/or work – suffer as a result.
Improvement of a person’s listening skills can enhance productivity as well as the ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. Not only that, it can help you avoid the emotional drain of conflict and misunderstandings. All of this requires a certain amount of self-awareness. While it is easy to be calm, cool and collected in serene settings, have you noticed how strong emotions can be triggered in over-stimulating environments when information is coming in at the speed of light? Active listening demands concentration, determination and a giant tossing aside – hey, Goodwill doesn’t even want them! – dilapidated habits.
The experts narrow effective, active listening down to 5 key tips and I’ve further simplified them for you by creating an acronym I call BFAIR.
B – Be broad-minded. What does this mean? Don’t whack the gavel down before you listen to the whole story. Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.
F – Focus. Pay attention. Look at speaker directly (sorry, impossible while driving), put aside distracting thoughts, stop mentally preparing your rebuttal, avoid distractions, and listen to the speaker’s body language.
A – Actively listen. Nod, smile, have open posture and encourage the speaker to continue with verbal comments, like yes and uh-huh, not by studying your iPhone hidden in your lap (especially while driving).
I – Input is interesting, so be interested enough to provide it. Paraphrasing is a good way to keep misunderstandings down, like by saying “what I’m hearing is”, “sounds like you’re saying”. And you can clarify too with “what do you mean when you say” or “is this what you mean?”
R – Respond respectfully. Nobody likes being condescended to and we’re all guilty of it from time to time. It’s another opportunity to “do unto others”. Be candid, open and honest in your response, asserting your opinions respectfully. Calling the speaker a dumbass, even if you think he or she is, is probably not a good way to promote further speaking, hearing or attempts at listening with that person.
Rachel Naomi Remen put it this way: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”