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Conversational listening

Step 1: Face the speaker, look encouraging [appropriate eye contact]

Talking to someone while they are busy scanning the room, studying a computer screen, or gazing out of the window gives a clear message 'I'm not really interested in you or what you've got to say.' How often have you wanted to say to someone "Look at me when I'm talking to you."

In most Western cultures, eye contact is considered a basic ingredient of effective communication. This creates empathetic awareness and increases understanding of what is being said [or un-said]. Look at them, even if they don't always look at you.

Your eyes will let the speaker know if your listening is authentic. Is your expression conveying ‘I am genuinely interested in you. I am not in a rush. Keep going.’ Be yourself at your respectful best – interested & alert. Your listening will be much more powerful as a result.

Shyness, uncertainty, fear, guilt, or other emotions can inhibit eye contact in some people under some circumstances. So try ‘walking and talking’ as a way of providing a better thinking/speaking space in which they can express their thoughts.

Step 2: Be attentive, interested, respectful & alert.

Effective listening won't happen if the conversation is really about your needs!!

Move at the speakers pace. You don't have to stare fixedly at the other person or walk too close [respect their personal space.] You can look at how the person is ‘presenting’ themselves when they look away from you [or move away or stop for a moment.] Mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise. Your aim is to make the other person feel good about themselves allowing them to reflect more on their strengths.

To "attend" to another person means to:

  • be present

  • give attention

  • remain ready to serve

This will ensure you are respecting the speaker as a thinker. Carl Roger’s [Person-Centred psychologist] called this giving the other person ‘unconditional positive regard’. Holding this respectful view of the person talking will help you to avoid judgemental thoughts, feelings, or biases.

Step 3: Let the speaker shine – it’s not about you!

When you don't understand something, of course you should ask the speaker to elaborate & explore their own meaning. But rather than interrupt, wait until the speaker pauses to ask for clarification.

When you notice that your comment/question has led the speaker away from her story/subject, turn the attention back on them asap. Ask a question they want to answer & they will become animated, confident, fully engaged.

Make it your aim to ensure the speaker feels great at the end of her story/explanation. Ask questions which elicit more information about all the things she found most exciting and enjoyable. This could help her to feel good for the rest of the day.

Reflective Listening

Step 4: Picture what the speaker is saying.

Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused, with senses fully alert. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on, and remember, key words and phrases. You can't rehearse what to say and listen at the same time. Think only about what the speaker is saying. Reflect the ‘meaning’ back. Check your understanding as often as necessary.

Metaphors & similies are particularly powerful conveyors of meaning which the speaker may not be aware of – until you ask them a question to get clarification eg ‘It was like hitting a brick wall....’ or ‘He just dissolved into tears & I felt like a bull in a China shop ...’

Concentrating on what is being actually said, and avoiding ‘anticipating’ what you think is the answer, will keep you intensely focused on the speaker. If your thoughts do start to wander, be aware of what is happening – notice your own state and re-focus on the speaker using the methods outlined.

Step 5: Wait for the speaker/thinker to finish - then ask clarifying questions – finishing their sentences or ‘anticipating’ their next words or [worse still] finding ‘solutions’ for them seldom works ....

Sentence-grabbing/finishing is so common. We’ve all done it – and it’s a killer for our effectiveness as listeners.

Interrupting prevents effective thought. It sends a variety of messages eg

  • "I'm more important than you are."

  • "What I have to say is more interesting, accurate or relevant."

  • "I’m not really interested in what you think because what I think is better."

  • "I don't have time for your opinion."

  • "This isn't a conversation; it's a contest, and I'm going to win."

Before I found a better way, I was often guilty of finishing people’s ‘thoughts’ for them. In particular, my husband’s thought processes seemed to happen way too slowly for me – I stopped listening when I ‘helpfully’ tried to speed up conversations by interrupting and finishing his sentences for him. This was obviously deeply annoying for him. I was indicating that I was no longer listening because I knew the answer and didn’t have time for what he was going to say .... my own train of thought was more important than his – I’d ceased to be interested in where his thoughts were headed. After a couple of rounds of this, he usually asked, "Do you want to have this conversation by yourself, or do you want to hear what I have to say?" Fortunately, the way I now listen has been transformed with the help of a lot of NLP, greater emotional intelligence & more self-reflection. But it will be a life-long journey: reversing my ‘learned’ behaviours!

When you need clarification wait until the speaker pauses. Interruptions are not helpful to the thinker. Then say something like, "I'm not sure I've understood that fully ...…could you explain again what you meant ...?"

Step 6: Give regular feedback - use ‘their words’ whenever possible.

Reflect the speaker's feelings with questions which show the depth of your listening eg "How thrilled did that make you feel!" "What was worst part of that ordeal for you." "I can see that made your position very difficult." Nod and show your understanding through appropriate facial expressions and an occasional well-timed "hmmm" or "uh huh” or ‘What else did you do/fell/experience .......?’

Restate instructions and messages IN THE POSITIVE to emphasise what should/must happen [rather than what shouldn't/mustn't] ie ‘so now you understand that it’s important to check every email in order to .....’ rather than ‘so you now know that if you don’t check your emails before sending them you could have another disaster’.

Deeper Listening

Step 7: Non-judgemental empathy – make the Thinker ‘feel felt’

'Mirror' what the other person is feeling by placing yourself in the other person's shoes: allow yourself to feel what it is like to be her at that moment. When you 'mirror' what the person is experiencing your facial expressions and words will reflect your empathy. Your effectiveness as a listener will be much greater as a result. But being ‘on the same branch’ as the thinker doesn’t mean you should be sitting in their lap!

This is not an easy thing to do. It takes energy and concentration. But it is generous and helpful. Feeling 'felt' facilitates effective communication.

Step 8: Keep an open mind

Listening without judging the other person or mentally criticising the things she tells you isn’t always easy. If what she says seems foolish or wrong to you, you need to find a way to suspend judgement and ask yourself ‘What is going on for this person?’

Listen without jumping to YOUR conclusions. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside her brain. You don't know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you'll find out is by listening – and then asking for more information – and listening again. Only when the person has finished should you begin to ask questions to help the person gain further insights about any ‘limiting assumptions’ eg What is/has created these thoughts/views? What is she assuming that is limiting her thinking?

The brain that contains the problem often contains the solution. It is in the presence of the right question that the mind thinks again. It’s up to you to set up the conditions, through active listening, which will help the thinker to find the solution which is right for them.

Step 9: Get Comfortable with Silences

When there is a silence, it doesn’t mean the speaker has stopped thinking. The reverse is usually true. The thinker is off on a solitary walk. You need to be there when they return.

This is a privileged moment – don’t ruin it!

There is no need to ‘rescue’ the thinker by speaking. Listen to their quiet. Enjoy it. There are millions of electrical connections happening in the brain during that silence. Don’t ruin it with an interruption. Staying out of the way of the thinking process is vital if the thinker’s mind is “to dive, to skate to the edge, to leap, to look under rocks, twirl, sit, calculate, stir, toss the familiar”* and so to ferment new ideas. In your presence, people will think at their best. [*Nancy Kline: Time to Think’]

Step 10: Pay attention to what isn't said — nonverbal cues

We glean a great deal of information about each other without saying a word. Even over the telephone, you can learn almost as much about a person from the tone and cadence of her voice than from anything she says.

When listening, remember that words convey only a fraction of the message. Stay interested and curious about what the body language of the thinker is conveying – this will help you to be conscious of any mismatch between words/actions. You could share this with the thinker at an appropriate moment in the listening process

Try this for at least one week - at the end of conversations in which information is exchanged, conclude with a summary statement & " that right?" to ensure you have understood. In conversations that result in agreements about future obligations or activities, summarising will not only ensures accurate follow-through, it will feel perfectly natural. If summarising feels awkward just explain that you are doing it as an exercise.

1st Stage Listening Skills Exercise:
·talk less
·engage empathy
·let the speaker shine
·activate nonverbal cues
·ask if there’s anything more
·enjoy ‘thinking’ silences
·find the limiting assumption[s]
·replace with a freeing one

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