Of all the interpersonal communication skills listening is the most important. Why? Because listening is the ability to recognise accurately the messages someone else is sharing. It involves hearing what is not said as clearly as what is. It is an active rather than a passive activity. In fact, at its very best listening is a combination of skills and attitudes applied for the sole purpose of understanding another human being.
Listening – really, genuinely listening – is the greatest gift we can offer to another. It is the mark and measure of our ability to give skilled attention. So, before we explore how to listen with clarity, we need to emphasise the following:
What is the underpinning attitude? It’s the desire to understand the person with whom we are communicating; to be able to see things from their perspective, to actually feel their emotions. Listening, then, is a multi-sensory, all-encompassing activity. It is total absorption in the other.
That requires that we let go of ourself. It takes us right back to the same point that I made – the same state that I talked about – in my last two articles about Looking. We simply cannot focus fully on ourself and someone else at the same time. If, as the saying goes, you want to walk a mile in their shoes you have to take your own shoes off first. Where listening is concerned, your thoughts, expectations, concerns or hopes are the equivalent of your footwear. You have to leave them behind. Only then can you step fully into the listening present.
So, assuming you have time prior to the interaction set your desired outcomes and then silence or, at least, calm your mind. I recommend using diaphragmatic breathing to do this, letting your stomach gently extend as you breathe in and contract as you breathe out. You can do this with either your eyes open or closed whilst sitting, feet flat on the floor with your back naturally erect. With practise, just three to five minutes like this will help you:
If this breathing exercise doesn’t appeal to you then, once you have set your desired outcomes, prepare by spending a few minutes engaging in a very different mental or physical activity to whatever you had been doing. This can be anything from a different work-related task to just walking for several minutes. This type of shift in activity helps us to consciously break away from whatever has been demanding our attention, whilst on a subconscious level the preparation still continues.
In our busy, daily schedules it’s very easy to rush from one interaction to the next without taking even a moment or two to attend to our own state. Too often we carry the noise from the meeting we have just left with us into the meeting we are now in. And we can repeat this several times a day, creating a level of internal noise that makes it all-but impossible to hear clearly what people are sharing with us here and now.
With listening, as with any other activity you wish to excel at, rest and recovery is as important as actually practising the skill. In some respects, of course, it’s even more important. We cannot develop and maintain clarity if we are creating and carrying around a build-up of sound inside our mind. Given that, I would urge you to take short breaks, of just a few minutes each, every ninety minutes ideally. Move, breathe, listen to music, enjoy a different cognitive activity – or do a mixture – just give yourself chance to rejuvenate so you can give real attention to what is coming next.
Too often, we ignore signs of personal fatigue and push on regardless believing a) this is a sign of professionalism and b) the quality of our performance won’t be damaged. We’re wrong on both counts. To have the sensory acuity necessary to be a great listener we need the energy to be alert. That means we need to be constantly re-charging our own batteries.
After all, if we can’t listen to ourselves what chance have we got of listening well to someone else?
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