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Active Listening for Effective Communication

Updated on January 20, 2018
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Kari was a registered nurse for almost 25 years. She spent most of those years in the operating room.

“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren't we like that wise old bird?”--Edward H. Richards

We all need to learn to listen well. Listening is a learned skill, the same as speaking in public. It just takes much longer to learn! Listening is a skill we should be practicing daily. And I mean active practicing, not just listening when and how is convenient to us. Listening is a free affirmation to others in this world that they are important.

"To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued."--Deborah Tannen, Author and Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University

Conversation has two parts: conversing and listening. Some one must speak, but more importantly someone must listen. We can speak, but without the listener we are just talking to ourselves. Having someone listen to our words give them greater relevance, it imparts greater meaning, it makes us feel more important. Having someone listen is affirmation that our existence is worthwhile. It is a positive affirmation of "I am valued because you listened".

"I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions."--Lee Iacocca, Former CEO Chrysler Corporation

"Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much."--Robert Greenleaf

Why should you listen?  Listening is the most important part of any conversation.  Without someone to listen, we are all just talking to ourselves.  Since we already know what we know, this is an amazingly useless task.

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt . -- George Eliot

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding. -- Bible, 'Proverbs' 17:28.

There are many reasons to listen. People may often mock you for what you say, but never when you listen. To listen is to gain knowledge. It is to understand another, whether or not they understand you. It is more important to understand than to be understood. True communication only occurs with understanding.

People want to be listened to. Most people prefer to talk than to listen. A good talker is often considered a bore, but a good listener is always sought after. But listening provides benefit to the listener also. You cannot learn while talking, but you can learn if you listen.

"A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something."—Wilson Mizner

"Wisdom is the reward for a lifetime of listening ... when you'd have preferred to talk."— D.J. Kaufman

"I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening."— Larry King

If you listen you will learn many things.  You may learn how someone else feels.  You may learn how to make money.  You may learn...anything!  You cannot learn unless you listen.  You never learn when you talk.

Many countries have sayings about the importance of listening. Let us look at some:

“To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation”--Chinese proverb

"Who speaks, sows; Who listens, reaps."— Argentine Proverb

Much silence makes a powerful noise.--African proverb

Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf.--Native American

From listening comes wisdom, and from speaking repentance.--Italian Proverb

Obviously many people find listening very important to understanding. Listening seems to be a very good and worthwhile thing, while talking seems to lead to pain.

"Today, communication itself is the problem. We have become the world's first overcommunicated society. Each year we send more and receive less."--Al Ries

"It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of supersophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners."--Erma Bombeck

So much of the world's misunderstanding occurs because people do not know how to listen. People tend to hear one part of a statement and then stop listening. Whether this is because they disagree with what they heard, or because only one part agrees with their personal views, they stop communicating when they stop listening.

It is easy to tell your opinion. It is much harder to listen to some one else's. True communication comes from listening not talking. Communication is the exchange of ideas, not a one sided dissertation. Arguments often occur from misunderstandings caused by lack of listening.

"When you are arguing with a fool, make sure he isn't doing the same thing."--Unknown

"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."--Ernest Hemingway

How do you practice listening? Here are some basic rules:

  1. Turn off your cell phone. There is nothing more disheartening than trying to converse with someone only to have their cell phone ring and you get put on hold while they answer. I can remember the days when you were only put on hold if you were the person on the phone. Now it seems as if every call is more important than the person in front of you.
  2. Put down what ever was in your hands. Are you in the middle of writing something? Put down the pen and fold your hands. Are you reading something. Close it so that you are not tempted to look down and start reading again. Then put it down.
  3. Turn off or away from your computer. The computer will distract you from your job at hand...listening.
  4. After you have rid yourself from distractions, face the person you are speaking with. Facing the person you are speaking with will help you to focus completely on listening. It also will acknowledge the person who is speaking, helping them to understand that you find what they are saying important.
  5. Do not fidget. Fidgeting gives the appearance that you do not want to listen. Most likely, you do not want to, nor do you have time to listen. Just believe me when I say that fidgeting will make the conversation last longer.
  6. Be aware of your body language. Didn't know your body spoke? Sometimes it not only speaks, but it shouts. Leaning into the speaker will show interest. Crossing you arms in front of your chest relays negativity. Looking around the room displays disinterest. Tapping your fingers informs the speaker that you are really too busy for them. Smiling is a positive affirmation. It tells the speaker you are open and accepting of their views. Looking the speaker in the eye (not staring) tells them that they are important.
  7. Listen completely. Do not start making judgements after the first few words. Do not start forming your reply in your mind. Pay attention to the speaker. Really listen to what they are telling you.

"Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something."--Plato

Have you ever been around that person who chatters and chatters. Every moment...more useless chatter. Some people enjoy fill the silence. Most people who are comfortable with themselves would prefer silence. The busyness of chatter takes time away from their own thoughts. They begin to feel the chatterer is frivolous and empty-headed.

The chatterer may feel they are breaking an awkward silence. Not every one is comfortable with their own thoughts. The incessant chatter is like a background noise that drowns out thoughts and feeling. You could compare it to turning the TV to static to help drown out the world if you need to sleep during the day. However, these poor people are trying to drown out the interior world as opposed to the exterior world.

"The saddest part about being human is not paying attention. Presence is the gift of life."—Stephen Levine

"Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals."--J. Isham

"If we can change ourselves, we can change the world. We're not the victims of the world we see; we're the victims of the way we see the world. This is the essence of compassionate listening: seeing the person next to you as a part of yourself."--Dennis Kucinich

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand."— Karl Menninger

Maybe this should have been entitled "How to Make Yourself Attactive". It seems listening wil bring people to you. You will be popular if you can listen to others. When you listen, people will want to be around you.

Learn the body language of an active listener in 4 minutes

© 2009 Kari Poulsen


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