The Art of Listening

“The first duty of love is to listen.” ~ Paul Tillich

Often, we listen to people the way we want to be listened to rather than listen to people the the way they want to be listened to.  I’ll use myself as an example.  I feel truly listened to and understood when the listener is leaning in, making eye contact, paraphrasing my words and asks me how I feel.

Knowing these qualities about myself, it’s easy for me to listen to others in this way.  However, in order to be an effective listener, I need to listen to others the way they want to be listened to.  But how do we know?

Active vs. Passive Listening

Pick up clues by paying attention to how others listen to you.  If your friend says “uh huh,” “yeah!” and ask lots of questions, he is probably an active listener.  So, do the same for him.  In contrast, if she doesn’t say much – well – keep quiet because she probably prefers passive listening.

Thinking vs. Feeling Types

Generally speaking, some people are thinking types and others are feeling types.  Notice the kinds of words used and reflect similar wording back when it’s your turn to speak.

For example, I am a feeling type and love it when people ask how I feel about something.  However, others are more uncomfortable when asked about how they feel and would rather talk about what they think about a given topic. So, if you find a person asks you what you think about something, chances are they want to be asked what they think rather than how they feel.

Non-Verbal Communication Clues

We know that 87% of communication is non-verbal.  Closely watch the other person when you’re the speaker.  Does she lean in? Does she sit back?  Does he cross his arms?  Does he seem distant?  Then, reflect what he or she did for you when it’s your turn to listen.

In my case, my instinct is to lean in and maintain eye contact because that’s what I would want in return.  However, others may feel uncomfortable or invaded with this type of listening.  So, by paying attention to the other person’s body language, you listen effectively when you mimic his or her non-verbal actions. Get it?

General Effective Listening Skills

Whether you are a feeling or thinking type, active or passive listener, there are a few universal listening skills that are a part of the art of listening.

  1. Be present. When you are effectively listening, your attention is 100% focused on that person.  You are not simultaneously writing an email, thinking about what you want to eat for lunch or eavesdropping on a nearby conversation.  Presence is one of the greatest gifts you can give another.
  2. Pause before replying. Let people talk things through to completion to avoid interrupting their stream of consciousness.  It’s kind and polite.  No one likes to be cut off in a conversation.
  3. Avoid giving advice. One problem with advice is that it may not show faith in another to find their own solution.  Instead, consider asking gentle probing questions that mimic their speech in order to guide them toward their own answers.
  4. Keep the conversation on them. People generally feel cared for and understood if you keep the conversation focused on them.  You can bring up a story of your own to illustrate a point, but bring it back to their story in terms of empathy or understanding.

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you want done unto you.  But the art of listening is about the Platinum Rule:  Do unto others as others would want you to do unto them.

How do you like to be listened to?

Source:  Notes from a workshop by Barbara Whiteside on March 5, 2011 “Seeing Ourselves and Our Family Clearly: A Roadmap to Healthier Family Dynamics”