Most people spend roughly 70% of their waking hours in some form of verbal communication. Yet, how many of us have ever had any formal training in the art of listening? Here are ten things you can do to improve your listening skills.
1. Approach the listening experience from a state of
To be centered is to be completely calm at a very deep level, to be without agendas or predispositions as to the outcome, and to be open to experience. Centeredness is a prerequisite to truly open listening. It sets the stage for the points below. For more on this topic, see Top Ten List #30, "Ten Ways to Develop Positive 'Ki' (Energy)"
2. Never rule out any topic of discussion as uninteresting.
Creative people are always on the lookout for new information. While some conversations may be completely inane, it's wise to make sure the subject is not worthwhile before tuning out completely.
3. Accept the speaker's message
On the face of it, this would seem to be an argument for gullibility--for believing almost anything anyone tells you. It's not. The point here is to withhold judgment during the immediate experience of listening. In accepting "as is", you're not making a determination as to the truth or falsity of the statement, you're simply acknowledging exactly what the speaker is saying--right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. This capacity for total acceptance frees the mind to listen for other clues, for example ...
4. Listen for the whole message.
One estimate has it that 75% of all communication is non-verbal. If you take away the words, what's left? Plenty, it turns out. Beyond the words themselves is a host of clues as to what the speaker is communicating. Some examples: posture (rigid or relaxed, closed or open); facial expression (does it support the words?); hands (clenched, open, relaxed, tense?); eyes (does the speaker maintain eye contact?); voice tone (does it match the words?); movement (are the speaker's movements intense, relaxed, congruent (with the message) or conflicting; do they suggest that the whole speech is "staged"?) What you're looking for here are inconsistencies between with is said and what is really meant, clues that tell you the spoken message isn't really genuine. Get the idea?
5. Don't get hung up on the speaker's delivery.
Then there are factors that simply reveal an awkwardness in delivery rather than any attempt to mislead. The key is being able to distinguish between the two. It's easy to get turned off when someone speaks haltingly, has an irritating voice, or just doesn't come across well. The key to good listening, however, is to get beyond the manner of delivery to the underlying message. In order for this to happen, you have to resolve not to judge the message by the delivery style. It's amazing how much more clearly you can "hear" once you've made the decision to really listen rather than to criticize.
6. Avoid structured listening.
It's popular among some communications teachers to recommend a format for listening, either in the form of questions ("What is the speaker's main point? What is he/she really saying?) or key words (e.g., purpose, evidence, intent). The problem with this approach is that it creates a dialogue of noise in the listener's mind which interferes with clear reception. Better to operate from the openness of the centered state (above) and receive the information just as it comes, without any attempt to structure or judge it. Think of your mind as similar to the central processing unit of a computer in which the data comes in and is stored without change, available for subsequent access.
7. Tune out distractions.
Poor listeners are distracted by interruptions; good listeners tune them out and focus on the speaker and the message. It's a discipline that lends itself to specific techniques for maintaining one's focus. Here are some things that will help: Maintain eye contact with the speaker; lean forward in your chair; let the speaker's words "ring" in your ears; and turn in your chair, if necessary, to block out unwanted distractions.
8. Be alert to your own prejudices.
This goes along with #3 above, but it's so important that you may want to think specifically about the impact of your prejudices on your ability to really hear what's being communicated. Often, we are unaware how strongly our prejudices influence our willingness and ability to hear. The fact is: any prejudice, valid of not, tends to obscure the message.
9. Resist the temptation to rebut.
Why is it that, when we hear someone saying something with which we strongly disagree, we immediately begin mentally formulating a rebuttal? Many reasons, but one of the most common is our natural tendency to resist any new information that conflicts with what we believe. Keep in mind: you can always rebut later, when you've heard the whole message and had time to think about it.
10. Take notes sparingly.
The world seems to be split between those who take prolific notes and those who take few or none, with each side equally strong in its position. I come down toward the latter view for this reason: the more focused you are on writing down what is being said, the more likely you are to miss the nuances of the conversation. There are two good ways around this dilemma. You can write down only key words and then, after the conversation, meeting, etc., go back and fill in, or you can take notes pictorially, that is, by diagramming what the speaker is saying. It's a technique called, "mind-mapping" and it was first popularized by a writer named Tony Buzan well over a decade ago in a book entitled, "Use Your Head". You may want to look up his books; he's written several.
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