What does it mean to really listen? Well, it’s a useful life skill which can have remarkable benefits for ourselves and others, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. In this day and age we tend to be very good at passive listening (i.e. ‘listening’ when we’re distracted, which is not really listening at all!) and we tend to be not so good at active listening. And yes, I include myself in that!
As part of my role, I work with parents to enable them to learn how to listen to their children in a different way and to help them feel confident in doing so. Listening is a skill that we can learn with practice, but the busy lives we lead prevents us from having the time to do so.
So, I’ve put together some tips for listening below.
1. Pause and Slow Down
When our brains are actively engaging in thoughts and ideas, we are not able to listen. We are all guilty of this (myself included, despite being a ‘professional listener’!) . This can be anything from thinking about tomorrow’s to do list, to worrying about finances or planning for an event. Of course, we can be emotionally overwhelmed and stressed at times which can inhibit our capacity to listen.
However, once we are aware of that, we can take some time out to slow down and pause (see previous posts for tips on this), and calm the Central Nervous System so we can ‘hold space’ for another person. The goal is to go from doing mode into being mode.
2. Remove all distractions i.e your phone!
If you’re distracted you are not fully present and are at the very best listening on a surface level. Put your phone away and avoid being distracted. This leads to what I like to call ‘fake listening’ or what I referred to earlier as ‘passive listening’. It is something we are all guilty of. However, it’s not a good disguise and is often a deterrent for the speaker.
3.Be curious not critical
A useful tip I learned in my training was to adapt the mentality of ‘curious not critical’. This is a useful stance to practice when listening to someone, particularly when you don’t agree with what they’re saying or believe it’s a good idea. Being judgmental is not helpful and can make the person less likely to open up again in the future.
4. Don’t interrupt
Allow the speaker to finish their sentences. Even if they’re meandering and you notice yourself becoming bored; accept that and allow them to complete what they’re saying.
5. Convey what you’ve heard by checking it out
A simple but effective technique is to ‘check out’ with the speaker, what you think they’ve said. Often we get this wrong, but that’s okay! It usually takes the form of a summary followed by a question, for example: ‘Okay, so I just want to check I’ve heard you correctly…(summarise).. Am I right? The speaker will correct you if you’re not right!
6. Identify the needs of the speaker
Often, people need us to listen not only to the narrative of what they are saying, but also the emotional content attached to it. Offering empathy and compassion is key here. Naming that this a difficult process for the speaker can be enough for them to feel heard, valued and understood.
It can also be useful to consider:
What is this person trying to communicate to me right now?
What is the purpose of this conversation?
What do they need from me?
Sometimes, we may need to be listened to, to meet a practical need. For example, if I need my partner to fix something on my laptop, I need him to listen to my request with clarity and understanding. The details of my request are important to listen to.
Other times, I need to be listened to so that my emotional needs are met. For example, when I’m feeling sad and I need to discuss it, I need someone to listen to the emotional content of my message. Compassion and empathy are what I require here. Often, this is more important than the details of the narrative.
Most people will be able to read the emotional climate of a conversation. However, there are times when we miss this. Simply because we are human! That’s when it’s important to ask yourself the questions above and ask yourself ‘Am I in doing mode or being mode right now?’
As I say in most of my posts, the steps above are merely a guideline for effective listening. If you would like to become more skilled in active listening, volunteer helplines offer useful training in this area. However, even if this article just makes you start to become slightly more aware of how you listen then that’s a great place to begin and build from!