THE ART OF GOOD LISTENING
by Susan Ginsberg, Ed.D.
Experts point out that every communication is really eight communications:
what you mean to say, what you actually say, what the other person
hears, what he thinks he hears, what he means to respond, what he
actually responds, what you hear him say, and what you think you hear.
For example, at home after work your spouse might ask: “How
was your day?” You could interpret this as a thoughtful way
of reconnecting, OR “You left the house in a big huff this morning.
I hope you are feeling better now,” OR you could also interpret
it as: I’m really interested in what happened to you today--
OR the opposite: Spare me the details!
How we listen, and respond, in any given moment may depend on what
we perceive to be the intent of the questioner, our mood, our energy
level, and our willingness to state information. Sometimes we want
to be heard (and responded to) in a particular way. For example, do
we want some specific advice about something that went wrong or just
a little bit of understanding? Most importantly, are we making this
clear to the other person?
BARRIERS TO GOOD LISTENING
Good listening is more than just taking in information. It means understanding,
communicating, and acknowledging other people’s feelings, both
good and bad. And like many other challenges in life, it’s easier
said than done.
One reason it’s so hard, say the experts, is that we listen
a lot faster than most people can speak so our minds tend to wander
instead of concentrating fully. We listen in spurts. That is, we concentrate,
let up and then concentrate again, and most of us only pay attention
to what we hear for about 60 seconds at a time.
Another barrier--and we see this acted out everyday in the media--is
the tendency to hear what we want to hear and believe what we want
to believe. This leads people to ask questions in order to get the
answers they want to hear and make assumptions about what other people
will say--even before they say it.
OVERCOMING THE BARRIERS
In the over-hyped society in which we live, it’s easy to become
a passive listener, taking in a lot of information but not feeling
the need to respond to, or talk about, what we’re seeing or
hearing. It’s easy (and perhaps necessary for our own sanity
on occasion) to just tune some things out. But “tuning out”
a habit can be risky because we may also be tuning out those voices
in our lives that we should be paying attention to: our family and
friends and the people we work with.
Here are some ideas to think about and suggestions for ways to overcome
barriers to good listening.
Don’t act like you are a mind reader or assume
that other people should know what you are thinking. For example,
when Jane says, “It’s cold in here,” her husband
Dan may wonder: Does she want me to turn up the thermostat, put another
blanket on the baby, or make her a cup of tea? If Jane wanted something
in particular, she should have just said it. But as a good listener,
it’s Dan’s responsibility to get some clarification.
Don’t let your own thoughts get in the way of what people
are trying to say. As we listen to people, we often are trying
to figure out the meaning of what they are saying and, at the same
time, experiencing our relationship with them and wondering what we
should say next and whether we should really say what is on our mind.
When we concentrate on these inner dialogues, as we tend to do--especially
in uncomfortable situations--we stop listening.
Try to resist chronic “busy-ness”
Being too busy or too distracted to concentrate on what people are
telling us is, increasingly, a barrier to good listening. When we
notice this happening, it helps to acknowledge that we can hear what
someone is saying but are unable, for the moment at least, to pay
full attention: “I want to hear all about your meeting with
your boss…but could you wait a few minutes until I can really
listen to you?
Pay more attention to language
Sloppiness in our language is another barrier to good listening. For
example, putting the word “like” a few times in practically
every sentence, or using pronouns it, that, and this without being
clear to whom or what we are referring. One result is that children
and people learning English as a new language have to interpret words
with fewer clues to help them understand our meaning.