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Listening – The forgotten half of conversations

Listening – The forgotten half of conversations

“By understanding the way conversations impact our listening we can determine how we listen—and how we listen determines how we interpret and make sense of our world" - Judith E. Glaser

It was Dr. Joyce Brothers who said, “Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.” Listening is the best way to respond to any conversation. It encourages the speaker and enables you to understand what they are saying.

Unfortunately listening is like the silent Cindrella, the forgotten stepchild in the communication process among the loud talks and debates. Listening is the most underdeveloped skill in communication. Many believe that they are good listeners, but it is largely mistaken for hearing.

Listening hard is what the practitioners call active listening and it is hard to practice.

Why is Active Listening difficult?

The very definition of listening is understood to be hearing, with a bit of thinking. To quote Mark Goulsten, author of the book Just Listen, “True listening, isn’t something that merely happens to you. It is something to do and to feel, to throw yourself into rationally, emotionally, and physically. Listening is something that engages us with multiple senses. It isn’t passive or reactive; it’s creative. And to do it well, you must feel the experience—not just think about it.”

Active listening is to understand why a person is saying something. It involves not just the ‘what’ aspect but also replying to the ‘why’ aspect.

It is difficult because we are interrupted in many ways. Our emotions, aspirations, and judgments often come in the way of listening.

Consider this conversation:

Ahaana: I am so excited today. We have booked tickets to go to the Disneyland in Florida. We plan to be there for a whole week.

Mita: That’s great. Disneyland is a great choice. I vacationed there a couple years back.

Superficially, this conversation does not sound bad, but if there were true listening from Mita’s end, she would have listened to the excitement and the need to share the news. True listening would have changed the reply to,

Mita: Oh, I am so glad for you. Seven days in Disneyland? That’s so exciting. What are your plans?

Let us consider another conversation:

Sid: I want to quit

Raghav: Hey! Things are not so bad. You will come out as a winner. Trust me. Don’t talk about quitting.

Superficially, this reply appears to be motivating, but to a man who is ready to throw in the towel, it will sound like the listener is downplaying his emotional state.

The first response in each example is to reply by telling the speaker how they should feel or what they should do; express approval or disapproval.

Replies like these seldom help or satisfy those who confide in you. Instead, it generally makes your speaker feel that you don’t really want to get involved or that you don’t trust them or their problems.

If you actively listen to Sid in the above conversation, you will hear his dejection, his fear in quitting, and his loss of faith in being able to pull through. In such a situation, we are not in his shoes, therefore, any form of suggestions regarding what to do is wrong.

Let’s do this conversation once again with active listening -

Sid: I want to quit.

Raghav: The job means a lot to you, doesn’t it?

Sid: Yeah, my appraisal this time sucked and I am scared I will lose my job.

Raghav: You are worried how it will affect your life.

Such active listening builds trust and allows the person to open up. Having their problems understood, reflected, not judged, and decreed shows that you have faith in their ability to arrive at their own solutions.

You are not a walking, talking motivational wallpaper on a search engine. Let’s stop sounding like one.

Most people don’t come to us for a solution, but for a shoulder.

Where to use Active Listening?

A simple point would be everywhere although some places require it more. Active listening is the best way to keep the conversation going. You will see people becoming overjoyed at the chance to express themselves without being cut off by some glib comment. This is the foundation of a great relationship.

Active listening is especially important when your speaker has something emotional to say. Happiness, grief, worry, and anger are all equally important emotions that deserve an active ear.

Try to be interested instead of interesting—when someone speaks with you, they will expect you to be interested in what they have to say. That is the reason they opened up to you. By trying to be interesting you are fulfilling a self-serving act and this will not really strengthen the relationship. Slowly they will stop sharing emotional issues with you.

Practicing active listening, however, needs to be approached with caution. Once people realize you are an active listener, honest criticisms may creep out of the closet. People may want to say, “Now that you are really listening, I want to say…” It would be easier to be prepared for such surprises. The most important act at this point is to be silent and let their emotion run.

As Winston Churchill says, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Listening to what others have to say, will be useful to your development.

In business, active listening is the soul of negotiation. Listening to what is being said in totality—the emotion, the facts, the body language, and the unsaid words will give us an edge in understanding the team across the table.

Active listening will make them open up more and, therefore, you have more cards on the table to make a better and informed decision.

Further, the trust built in the process will ensure smoother business processes where both parties are satisfied.

Ultimately, active listening helps to build a rapport and trust, which then can allow a negotiation move toward the next step of jointly exploring options that can lead to an agreement.

About the Author

Dr Latha Vijaybaskar, a certified Coach, Faculty and Author, helps navigate the conversation side of life and business.  Author of 3 books, Talk Action – How Successful Teams Align Conversations with Action (to be released by year end), 21 Difficult Conversations - Tools to navigate your most important talk and master exactly what to say and Masterstrokes – Reinventing Leadership in uncertain times, Latha can be reached at latha@drlathavijaybaskar.com – to coach you to master your conversations.