How You Can Learn to Be a Better Listener

How You Can Learn to Be a Better Listener

Hey!! Did you hear what I just said? There’s nothing more annoying when you talk to someone than thinking that they haven’t heard a word you’ve said. Or their body language indicates that they would rather be doing anything else but listening to whatever you have to say. Instructors don’t like it and neither do students – especially during class discussions – and yet we get easily distracted because of thoughts about our busy lives, the need to need to stay connected via technology, and our concern about what we need to say next. Listening it seems has become a lost art but one of the most important aspects of communicating.

How important is listening? It has been called the number one skill for effective communication because “the better we listen, the more others appreciate us and, in return, the more they listen to us.” While many students are focused on development of their writing and speaking skills, which are necessary for academic success, many forget that they also need to work on their listening skills. The process of communication is complex and the ability to focus on what someone else is saying engages your attention and allows you to develop positive interactions and working relationships with them. There are three methods you can use to enhance your active listening skills and improve your ability to communicate with others more effectively. 
1. Monitor Your Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal communication is important because it is part of the first impression made when interacting with someone else in person. UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian’s psychological study found that “body language accounts for 55% of a first impression; 38% comes from tone of voice; 7% comes from our actual words – and when your verbal and non-verbal communication are incongruent, people will believe the non-verbal.” When you interact with someone for the first time, especially during the first few weeks of class as you are getting to know everyone, you are going to rely upon your visual and perceptual interpretations to determine who you connect with and want to interact or communicate with during class. Even as you listen to what others are saying, you are evaluating their intent through their nonverbal communication.

The most important nonverbal cue you need to monitor while interacting with others is your body language. Body language is a natural reaction to external events and circumstances that provides immediate feedback through expressions and gestures. We have to be careful when we are communicating with others as bodily expressions may indicate a lack of proper social skills, give the appearance of being bored, or indicate that we simply do not care, which may or may not be accurate. For example, if another student is talking to you directly during a class discussion and you look around, fidget with your pen, or fail to maintain eye contact, you may be perceived in a negative manner. These nonverbal cues can stop the conversation in its tracks and leave a poor lasting impression.
2. Develop Your Focus

If you want to truly listen to someone else you have to pay attention to what they are saying. In order to do this you have to tune out distractions, which includes technological devices such as your cell phone. Maintaining focus is important because the communication process is complex and occurs very quickly. When someone is talking to you they are sending a communication message. You don’t automatically receive and accept what has been said because you use an internal filtering process that includes opinions, beliefs, and preferences. If you are distracted and not paying attention, the message and spoken words are not fully processed and interpreted accurately.

As you interact with others in class you may not find that every discussion or conversation is interesting; however, paying attention is still necessary because students (and your instructor) contribute to your learning. In order to develop your focus you must to learn to use the power of concentration – or make a determined effort to pay attention to what is being said, especially if the conversation is being directed to you. To develop your ability to concentrate you can take notes – but still maintain occasional eye contact and acknowledge the speaker with affirmative gestures. Another method you can use is a technique called Be Here Now, as described on the Kansas State University (KSU) website. This is a “deceptively simple strategy is probably the most effective – when you notice your thoughts wandering astray, say to yourself: Be here now.” This serves as a triggering mechanism to help you develop a habit of being focused during the conversation.

3. Engage with the Speaker

This is the last step listed as it is important to listen before you speak or engage with the other person. As noted in Learning to Listen, “giving the other person's words a moment to sink in before you respond, your connection with that person, the depth of your conversation, will be very noticeable – and your mind is doing one thing at a time: listening when it's time to listen, and responding when it's time to respond.” If you wait to respond you focus on the other person and concentrate on what they have to say before you formulate a response. Too often students are in hurry to express their own thoughts and opinions instead of engaging other students in a conversation.

There are several techniques you can use to interact with someone else, after you have listened to what they said. Paraphrase or summarize the information as a means of clarification, and then ask a follow up question. The use of questions is always beneficial as it demonstrates being present in the conversation and acknowledges that you have listened. You can also share a related experience and build a connection through similar interests. The goal of engagement is to develop rapport with others, which leads to productive working relationships that make the class enjoyable and meaningful through working effectively with other students.

Being a Better Listener

The following video from Mindtools provides a discussion and explanation of active listening skills, incorporating some of the techniques described above.

In this video the speakers indicate that we often become preoccupied with our own thoughts and as a result, miss what others are saying. Active listening requires a conscious effort of paying attention – while tuning out any potential distractions. When you listen, you are fully engaged in the process of communication.

Pay attention to your nonverbal cues and internal filters to avoid any potential barriers to the process. The power of your focus and concentration allows you to fully receive and interact with information heard from someone else and as a result, you will find it easier to comprehend the meaning of what’s been said and respond appropriately. As you learn to listen better, you increase your capacity to be empathetic or relate to others, understand their perspectives, and develop better working relationships with them.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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