The feeling that you are not being listened to is very frustrating. Relationships have been ended because of this feeling, in families, in workplaces and in business.
One reason this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening is not a skill generally developed and practiced. By comparison, reading, analyzing, and speaking are skills that are regularly part of educational programs.
Hearing is not the same as listening. Although it is a common saying, we seem to need frequent reminders. Just because I am speaking a language you understand and you can hear my words, I cannot be sure that you are listening to me. Vibration of the eardrums is not enough.
Many of us have not thought about how we listen. At the same time effective listening is the social glue that enables us to form meaningful relationships and connections.
Mortimer J. Adler wrote in How to Speak, How to Listen:
“We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of speaking and listening … training is required … Likewise, skill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.”
Active listening is taught for use in many professional contexts and is applicable to any communication setting. An active listener listens with full attention, observe non-verbal components of what is said, clarify any unclear points, may paraphrase what is said, and ask the speaker to expand.
A mediator working with two or more people who are involved in a conflict, helps to resolve the conflict by facilitating active listening through words and body language, and in that way creates an opportunity for the disputing parties to understand one another.
“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” ― M. Scott Peck
Listen Actively = Understand + Retain + Respond
First, we must understand what the other person is saying. In most cases, this occurs without a lot of effort. Some possible barriers which can limit comprehension, include:
- Use of jargon or slang
- Differences in culture, age, education, or other factors not shared by both speaker and listener.
In Eyes Wide Open, Isaac Lidsky recommends simplifying understanding by asking “Can you explain that like I’m five years old?.”' Removing jargon and explaining things in simple language results in improved comprehension of complex topics.
As an active listener we must understand and retain what the person has said.
That retention of details cannot be limited to the part of what they said that is relevant to our reply. In order to listen actively we must focus on what the speaker said without thinking about what we will say next.
One of the challenges of listening is suppressing our ego long enough to fully consider what they said. No matter how many times we may have heard from other clients or friends in similar situations, we do not know what this particular person is going to say until we listen to them.
Possible barriers to retention include:
- Cognitive biases and selective listening (See Common Ground Blog, March 3, 2017)
- Distractions, internal or external, such as fatigue, noise, or mobile devices.
- Issues with memory, such as dementia.
Tell them what we understand. After listening to understand and retaining what we heard, then we need to communicate what we understand them to have said. This allows the speaker to assess your level of understanding.
“To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions,” in the words of Shane Parrish, Farnam Street Blog.
In responding we need to let the speaker know that we have paid attention to their words and also observed their non-verbal communication. When you disagree with the speaker, resist the temptation to try to add meanings to your response that align with your own perspective. This is not listening; this is debating.
The same possible barriers apply to responding as to understanding and retaining.
“Anyone can talk,
but to listen is a gift,
we should all exchange”
Build your active listening skills to resolve conflict. Join us for Fundamentals of Mediation, a 40 hour, 5 day intensive mediation course. The next course dates are March 21, 22, 23, 26 and 27, 2018 in London, Ontario, Canada. Early registration discount ends February 12!