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The Art of Listening

There is a reason we were given two ears and one mouth. You do not learn anything when you are talking, only when you are listening. It is amazing how few people are skillful at listening given its importance to one’s personal and professional success. The best listeners possess a competitive advantage in securing the right job, friends and mate.
Mastering the art of listening is within the capabilities of everyone. Few individuals, however, are prepared to invest the effort and discipline it takes to do so. You cannot become an excellent communicator without first being an excellent listener.
Be an Active Listener
The first requirement in mastering this art is being an active listener as opposed to a passive listener. This involves adopting a specific mind-set in approaching conversations with the objective of truly hearing and understanding what is being said. To be an effective active listener, you have to:
  • Relax and clear your thoughts. Put yourself in a receptive frame of mind to hear what the speaker wants to say.
  • Face the other person squarely with an open, relaxed, friendly stance at the same level, sitting or standing. Lean forward slightly. Do not cross your arms across your chest. Avoid covering the lower part of your face and mouth with your hands when you are listening or speaking.
  • Establish and maintain direct eye contact — not aggressive, forced eye contact but natural, gentle, comfortable eye contact.
  • Lock into what the person is saying right at the beginning with his or her first words. Do not let yourself get distracted. Concentrate 100% of your attention mightily on what the individual is saying verbally and non-verbally in terms of both content and intent.
  • Listen with genuine empathy and respect. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Be sensitive to the speaker’s expressed feelings and emotions.
  • Slow your thinking down to the pace of the other person’s words and exercise patience in letting that individual finish the entire thought of what he or she wants to say. Do not be in a hurry to start speaking whenever the person pauses. Also, do not finish the speaker’s sentences even if you think the other person is taking too long to say something.
  • Take into account that people from different ethnic backgrounds or nationalities will have different communication styles.
  • Watch the other individual’s facial expressions, eyes and body movements for clues as to what the person really means to say.
  • Keep relatively still when someone is speaking to you. If you are sitting, keep your hands on top of the table or desk. Do not drum or pick your fingers.
Anti-Listening Behavior
The most common actions that inhibit your ability to be an effective listener are:
  • Overreacting emotionally and personally to what is being said, especially before the speaker finishes what he or she wants to say.
  • Thinking about your response or next question while someone is still speaking.
  • Letting your own feelings override those of the other person's.
  • Prematurely analyzing or reaching a decision in your own mind before you have heard everything the other person has to say.
  • Interrupting or cutting off the speaker’s words with your own comments or interjections.
  • Looking at your watch or a cellphone, fidgeting and fiddling with objects such as a pen or something else in your hands or on your desk, jingling change in your pocket while someone is talking to you.
  • Influencing, directing or stifling what is being said with your own overtly positive or negative body language, facial expressions, nods or spontaneous verbal comments.
  • Tuning out what someone is saying when the person’s appearance, tone of voice or conduct is not initially to your liking.
Get It Right
In business and professional situations, it is often necessary to seek clarification of what you hear and are being told. This is especially critical with descriptions of assignments, tasks, problems and issues. If there is any ambiguity or confusion in your mind in this regard, request that the speaker restate what he or she said. Or ask, “Can you be more specific or give me an example?” It may also be helpful for you to paraphrase back what you think was said by saying to the speaker, “If I understand you properly, you are asking me to … Is this correct?”
Following such a conversation, if the subject was important, make notes on exactly what was said. Date and keep them. This is a valuable practice to follow whenever you are going to be held accountable for performing an assignment or project of any consequence.
To truly understand what is being said, you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. As Rudyard Kipling said on this subject:
I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Finally, to be an effective listener, you have to make yourself available to do so. You have to unplug from your “busy schedule” on a regular basis to ask those around you — co-workers, friends, family members — “How are you doing?” and “What’s up?” If someone starts acting in an uncharacteristic manner, seems unusually quiet or is avoiding you, that is a sure sign that you need to perform some serious listening with that person ASAP.
Decide today to become a champion listener. When you master the art of listening, you will be surprised at how much all aspects of your life improve.


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