Communication skills: The power of effective listening

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interprete messages in the communication process. Effective listening is an active process that has three basic steps: a) Hearing: Hearing just means listening enough to catch what the speaker is saying. For example, say you were listening to a report on zebras, and the speaker mentioned that no two are alike. If you can repeat the fact, then you have heard what has been said.
If seated, leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. An active audience is also proof that they are listening.
If seated, leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. An active audience is also proof that they are listening.

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interprete messages in the communication process. 

Effective listening is an active process that has three basic steps:

 

a) Hearing: Hearing just means listening enough to catch what the speaker is saying. For example, say you were listening to a report on zebras, and the speaker mentioned that no two are alike. If you can repeat the fact, then you have heard what has been said.

 

b) Understanding: The next part of listening happens when you take what you have heard and understand it in your own way. When you hear that no two are alike, think about what that might mean. You might think, “Maybe this means that the pattern of stripes is different for each zebra.”

 

C) Judging: After you are sure you understand what the speaker has said, think about whether it makes sense. Do you believe what you have heard? You might think, “How could the stripes be different for every zebra? But then again, the fingerprints are different for every person. I think this seems believable.”

A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said. What people don’t say is actually what they are saying. Active listening involves observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages. If someone tells you that they are happy with their life but through gritted teeth or with tears filling their eyes, you should consider that the verbal and non-verbal messages are in conflict, they maybe, don’t mean what they say. If your cousin visits you in Kigali and tells you that your aunt is sick, he is sincerely asking for medical fee to take your aunt to hospital. Effective listening is very often the foundation of strong relationships with others, at home, socially, in education and in the workplace

Good listening habits

1. Concentration. Good listening is normally hard work. At every moment we are receiving literally millions of sensory messages. Nerve endings on our bottom are telling us the chair is hard, others are saying our clothes are binding, nerve endings in our nose are picking up the smells of cooking chicken stew, or whatever, our ears are hearing the buzzing of the computer fan, street sounds, music in the background and dozens of other sounds, our emotions are reminding us of that fight we had with our mate last night, and thousands more signals are knocking at the doors of our senses. We have to repress almost all of these and concentrate on the verbal sounds (and visual clues) from one source — the speaker. And this concentration, if something that most of us have not been thoroughly trained in how to do. Focus your attention — on the words, ideas and feeling related to the subject. Concentrate on the main ideas or points.

2.Attention. Attention may be defined as the visual portion of concentration on the speaker. Through eye contact and other body language, we communicate to the speaker that we are paying close attention to his/her messages. All the time we are reading the verbal and nonverbal cues from the speaker, the speaker is reading ours. What messages are we sending out? If we lean forward a little and focus our eyes on the person, the message is we are paying close attention.

3.Eye contact. Good eye contact is essential for several reasons: First, by maintaining eye contact, some of the competing visual inputs are eliminated. You are not as likely to be distracted from the person talking to you. Second, most of us have learned to read lips, often unconsciously, and the lip reading helps us to understand verbal messages. Third, much of many messages are in non-verbal form and by watching the eyes and face of a person we pick up clues as to the content. A squinting of the eyes may indicate close attention. A slight nod indicates understanding or agreement. Most language messages can have several meanings depending upon voice inflection, voice modulation, facial expression, etc. Finally, our eye contact with the speaker is feedback concerning the message: Yes, I am listening, I am paying attention. I hear you.

Remember: a person’s face, mouth, eyes, hands and body all help to communicate to you. No other part of the body is as expressive as the head.

4.Receptive body language. Certain body postures and movements are culturally interpreted with specific meanings. The crossing of arms and legs is perceived to mean a closing of the mind and attention. The nodding of the head vertically is interpreted as agreement or assent. (It is worth noting that nonverbal clues such as these vary from culture to culture just as the spoken language does.) If seated, the leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. Standing or seated, the maintenance of an appropriate distance is important. Too close and we appear to be pushy or aggressive and too far and we are seen as cold. So keep reasonable distance when communicating with an individual.

5.Understanding of communication symbols. A good command of the spoken language is essential in good listening. Meaning must be imputed to the words. For all common words in any language there are numerous meanings. The three-letter word, “run” has more than one hundred different uses. You as the listener must concentrate on the context of the usage in order to correctly understand the message. The spoken portion of the language is only a fraction of the message. Voice inflection, body language and other symbols send messages also. Thus, a considerable knowledge of nonverbal language is important in good listening.

6.Objective. We should be open to the message the other person is sending. It is very difficult to be completely open because each of us is strongly biased by the weight of our past experiences. We give meaning to the messages based upon what we have been taught the words and symbols mean by our parents, our peers and our teachers. Talk to someone from a different culture and watch how they give meaning to words. Or another listening challenge is to listen open and objectively to a person with very different political or religious beliefs.

Can you do that? It is wonderful if you can, but relatively few people can listen, understand and appreciate such messages which are very different from their own. If you cannot, it is time to start because as a leader or teacher you will need to understand a wide range of opinions on often-controversial subjects.

7.Restating the message. Your restating the message as part of the feedback can enhance the effectiveness of good communications. A comment such as: “I want to make sure that I have fully understood your message....” and then paraphrase in your own words the message. If the communication is not clear, such a feedback will allow for immediate clarification. It is important that you state the message as clearly and objectively as possible.

8.Questioning/clarifying. Questions can serve the same purpose as restating the message. If you are unclear about the intent of the message, ask for more information after allowing sufficient time for explanations. Don’t ask questions that will hurt, embarrass or show up the other person.

Only part of the responsibility is with the speaker. You have an important and active role to play also. If the message does not get through, two people have failed the speaker and you as an active listener.

9.Empathy — not sympathy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another....” Sympathy is “having common feelings...” In other words as a good listener you need to be able to understand the other person, you do not have to become like them. Try to put yourself in the speaker’s position so that you can see what he/she is trying to get at.

10.Strategic pauses. Pauses can be used very effectively in listening. For example, a pause at some point in the feedback can be used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that you are “thinking” about what was just said. Pauses help the listeners to absorb and interpret what has been said. The length of the pause, however, is influenced by the type of task posed by the speaker. Make as many pauses as the many issues you want understood by your listeners. A serious mental task may need a longer pause. Pauses help listeners to draw images of what they are listening to, this enhance understanding.

11.Don’t interject. There is a great temptation at many times for the listener to jump in and say in essence: “isn’t this really what you meant to say.” This carries the message: “I can say it better than you can,” which stifles any further messages from the speaker. Often, this process may degenerate into a game of one-upmanship in which each person tries to outdo the other and very little communication occurs.

12.Leave the channel open. A good listener always leaves open the possibility of additional messages. A brief question or a nod will often encourage additional communications

13.You cannot listen while you are talking. This is very obvious, but very frequently overlooked or ignored. An important question is why are you talking: to gain attention to yourself? or to communicate a message?
The writer is a lecturer at Kigali Institute of Management

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