Listen Up!

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

When most of us think about effective communication, we think about how to best get our point across, right? Yet talking is only one aspect of communication, and some would say it’s the least important. Listening is key to the exchange of information and messages. There’s a saying that goes, “None of us ever really communicates; we just take turns talking.” During the time we should be listening in a conversation, we’re usually thinking about what we just said, what we’re going to say next, or what we should have said — or we’re distracted by things in our environment. Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is easy; listening takes work. To become a better listener —

Avoid distractions. During important conversations, do what is necessary to minimize extraneous noise and interruptions. Go to a quiet location, have your phone calls held, turn off the radio, close the door to your office, etc. When having a phone conversation, avoid the temptation to open your mail or work on your computer while listening. Not only is this rude (the speaker may hear what you’re doing), but it interferes with your ability to listen and concentrate.

Be aware of body language — yours and theirs. When listening in person, you should be in a relaxed position, leaning slightly toward the speaker. Avoid crossing your arms or engaging in nervous habits, such as tapping your finger on the desk or glancing at the door or your watch. This gives the impression that you’re not interested.

Learn to listen with your eyes, as well as your ears. Actions speak louder than words. A speaker may say that something is not a problem, but clench his fists as he says it, indicating that something else is at work. Facial expressions, yours and the speaker’s, can also speak volumes. Some of us have a tendency to frown or furrow our brow when listening. Though this may be a common listening posture, it can appear to the speaker that you’re unhappy or that you disagree with what he or she is saying. Instead, keep your face as neutral as possible while listening. You’ll avoid sending signals that could be misinterpreted.

Ask clarifying questions. Get the information you need to understand the speaker’s message. You might ask, “What exactly do you want me to do?” or “When did this first occur?” Save your questions for the end, if possible, rather than interrupting — especially if the speaker is upset or “on a roll.” It’s easy for a speaker to get distracted or thrown off course if you’re constantly interrupting.

Paraphrase or repeat concepts and statements. Paraphrase the speaker’s message by saying something like, “Let me see if I understand. You’re saying….” This is a good way to be sure you understood what the speaker was saying. What you think you heard is not necessarily what the speaker meant. Besides, not everyone expresses himself or herself in a clear, concise way. So seek clarification of the message.

Stop talking — both out loud and in your mind. Many of us tend to continuously interrupt or try to defend or clarify our own position while it’s the other person’s turn to talk. This is especially likely to happen when there’s a difference of opinion or when discussing a problematic situation. Quiet, attentive listening will yield more information, thereby facilitating better communication. It also shows respect for the speaker and gives the impression that you’re truly interested in what he or she has to say. Besides, the speaker may bring up a point you hadn’t even thought of.

Summarize at the end of a conversation. Go over the points discussed, any conclusions drawn, and review any agreed-upon actions for either party. This will help everyone remember what was discussed and what follow-up, if any, is expected.

Good listening, like good speaking, comes with practice and your commitment to be a better communicator. A general rule of thumb is to talk less and listen more. I challenge you to try!

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