It takes more than ears to really listen

by Catherine Fenwick ã 2000

Everyone knows how to talk, only a gifted few know how to listen. We think that if there is no wax build up, our eardrums vibrate, and the connections to the brain are functioning, we are listening. Think again, thatís hearing! To really listen you need more than your ears. Studies show that communication is 7 to 10 percent words, 30 to 35 percent tone of voice, 50 to 60 percent non-verbal " body language." Itís not possible to really listen if we use only our ears! When we give undivided attention to those with whom we are speaking we really need to use our ears, our eyes and our heart. We need all of these to be effective listeners. Donít underestimate the power of the heart to listen. People who have loss of hearing or loss of vision are very adept at using intuition.

Communication skills are greatly improved when we learn to listen well. Usually people are so busy thinking of their own responses to what the other is saying that they donít really hear what is being communicated. The interaction runs along two different tracks and they arenít heading in the same direction. Each ends up at a different destination, wondering why they are yelling at each other. Inevitably someone shouts, "Youíre not listening!"

To have meaningful discussion we need to be honest and clear, keep an open mind and a willing heart. When we acknowledge where we are going with the interaction we are more likely to both get to the same place. For example, Mary wants Bob to stop taking the stapler off her desk and forgetting to put it back. Mary may carry on a casual conversation, making a few vague remarks about desks, staplers, and other things in the hope that Bob will interpret what sheís saying. If Mary really wants to address this issue and get results she will need to make it clear in the beginning that this conversation is about her stapler and Bobís failure to respect her space and property. Bob will want to really listen if he values Mary as a colleague.

Discussions become heated at times and are made worse when people are not clear about their intent and one or both are listening at the "ears only" level. If we hear words while formulating responses, we get only parts of the message. Now both are responding to partial messages, frustration builds to the point where we hear, "You donít understand." "I give up." "Youíre not listening."

To communicate effectively, early in the exchange, both people need to ask for clarification instead of assuming they know what the other is saying. Statements can be paraphrased or mirrored, for example; "What I heard you say is Ö," but donít be a parrot and repeat back word for word. Mirroring keeps things clear and forces us to listen to the other rather than thinking about how we will respond.

We show we are listening by paying attention, by using open body language, leaning a bit toward the speaker, maintaining eye contact, nodding and showing enthusiasm for what is being said. When we listen with our heart we understand the underlying feelings in the communication, we can put ourselves in their shoes and let them know their feelings are valid. We need to suspend judgment and be aware of how our own prejudices may influence our interpretations. Itís a good idea to take time to organize your messages, but not while the other is speaking. Silent periods are not bad. Silence and time for reflection are very effective communication tools. Ask questions to get more information when you donít understand. Paraphrase what was said by outlining the main issues and emotions that were heard. Communicate with respect, avoid degrading, insulting, interfering or interrupting others. Treat people as you wish to be treated. Never give unsolicited advice and be very careful about giving advice at all, even when asked.

Effective speaking and listening means that we sometimes have to take risks. If I am feeling threatened I might not want to risk opening my heart to another. I wonít risk by speaking and I may not take the risk of listening either. I may not want to hear what you are really saying. Motivation plays a big role in the art of effective listening. I must ask myself, "Do I really care?" If I care I will make the effort to listen. To speak with honesty and to listen with compassion asks that we open our heart to another. When I speak my truth and listen with my heart I take the first steps toward building trust. If you want to work with me on this, you will need to reciprocate.

To listen effectively requires that we give our undivided attention, be aware of the meta-communications (body language, tone of voice, emotions), and be compassionate (try to put ourselves in the otherís shoes). This is not so hard, but it requires commitment, attention and caring. Well, maybe itís not so easy, but it is definitely worth the effort.

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