In the first part of this series on communication, we explored how the words we use can create problems in clearly conveying the messages we intend. The second part of the series covered how nonverbal and paraverbal factors interact with what we say to augment or change our messages. This third (and concluding) installment will address the listening side of communication. The first two parts focused on what we broadcast, but an equally important factor is how we are receiving messages from those with whom we interact.
When people describe the conflicts they have with their partners (or anyone else for that matter), a common thread is that the conversation escalates. It may start out as a slight disagreement but soon becomes a full scale, bridge burning, name calling free for all. While there is much to be said about conflict resolution, that is a subject for another time. I want to focus here on how we can use listening as a communication tool to attempt to avoid the sparks of conflict from turning into a full blown forest fire.
So often in conflict we only hear the first bit of what our counterpart is saying. We then hear something that we want to respond to and we begin formulating our own response, counterargument, rebuttal, accusation, or counterattack. In the time we spend formulating this response, we have effectively checked out from what the other is saying. Quite often we have missed important information that may have shifted or augmented what we initially were responding to. This is equivalent to reading half of a sentence and expecting to have a clear picture of what the entire sentence was communicating. In doing so, we short change ourselves by cutting off our access to the entire picture. This personal cost is in addition to the frustration that it can cause our partner when they feel misunderstood or unheard in our interactions.
One of the best ways to combat this tendency to quickly formulate a response is to follow the principle of seek first to understand, then be understood. This originates from the excellent and popular work of Stephen Covey in his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This principle, as in many suggestions towards healthy habits, is simple but not easy. We can easily grasp what it means to first understand what our conversation partner is communicating and then to proceed to make our own point, but it can be very challenging to actually do it. Most of what makes it difficult is the shear habit of not doing it, so making a concerted effort to practice this new style will go a long way. Practicing two other things will also aid you in working towards being able to follow the principle of seek first to understand and these are active listening and the “did I get that right?” exercise, both of which will be explained in detail in the remainder of this article.
I recall when I was first exposed to the concept of active listening. I was towards the end of my undergraduate studies and was taking a course titled “skills of counseling.” At this point, I had basically made the decision that counseling was the field that I wanted to pursue when I grew up. So, unlike many of the courses that had come before it, I actually paid attention to the majority of what was taught. I can recall when the professor announced that the lecture that day would be about listening. My immediate thought was “Well, this should be a short lesson. Hear what people say. Class dismissed.” Already making plans for what I anticipated to be an unexpected free afternoon, I had no way of knowing how my understanding of listening as a skill would change by the end of this class.
Part of the mistake that I had made was in confusing listening with hearing. We hear at all times (unless we are purposefully putting on some noise-cancelling headphones to tune out the world). It even happens when we are not fully aware of it. Our brains have the capability to register auditory sensory input without us necessarily having to attend to it. In English, this means that we can hear things even when we are not really trying to do so. We may not even be paying attention to what we are hearing (as frequently happened in any history class I took). We need to differentiate hearing from active listening by defining active listening as hearing, concentrating, understanding, and responding. Active listening thus is a process whereas hearing is an experience.
To reiterate, the process of active listening is:
- Hearing – receiving auditory sensory input that registers for us consciously. We cannot begin to actively listen to someone who is talking in the other room. We must be able to clearly hear them.
- Concentrating – attending to what is being said while being free of distractions, both internal and external. External distractions tend to be obvious (our smart phone, interruptions, others’ noises, etc.) while internal distractions are not so apparent (thinking about other things while someone is talking to us, formulating our response, etc.).
- Understanding – taking the time to process what was said and being sure that we grasp what the other person was trying to communicate.
- Responding – letting the other person know that we heard and understood what they said. This may also include responding in the manner of statements like “uh-huh” or “I hear what you’re saying” or nonverbal responses like nodding or shaking your head.
In addition to these four components of the process of active listening, we also need to address the role of nonverbal communication in active listening. You may recall from part two of this series of articles that nonverbal communication encompasses the way that we use our body to “speak.” We can communicate that we are listening to someone by:
- Maintaining eye contact – this tells someone that we are paying attention to them.
- Leaning forward – ok, maybe not that much, Michael Jackson. A subtle forward lean towards the person talking lets them know that you are interested and engaged with what they are saying.
- Using encouragers – these are small messages that encourage the other person to keep talking by letting them know that you are following along. This can be a smile, nodding, saying “uh-huh,” or any other things along those lines.
So now that we know more about active listening and how to do it, let me introduce you to an exercise that will put these skills to use. I call it the “Did I get that right?” exercise.
“Did I get that right?”
To do this exercise, two people must be on the same page about the protocol in order to successfully complete the task. Here is how it works:
- Person A speaks while Person B practices active listening. Once Person A has completed what they wanted to say, they say “ok, that was it.”
- Person B now summarizes what they heard by saying “What I heard you say was ___.” Person B should make an effort to put it in their own words rather than simply repeat exactly what was said (though if Person B were able to do so it would demonstrate that they had been listening attentively). Once Person B has completed their summary they ask Person A “Did I get that right?” (Ding ding! Now you see where the exercise title comes from)
- Person A responds with either “yes” or “no.” If “no,” Person A says “What you missed was ___.” Person B would then have a chance to try again at the “What I heard you say was ___.” Once Person A is able to answer the “Did I get that right?” question with a “yes” we move on to the next step.
- Person B gets to respond and present their own input. The same process as above repeats itself with each person now switching roles. This goes back and forth until the conversation has reached its conclusion.
This exercise might appear to be a bit tedious and it will indeed feel like your conversations take longer than usual when you are using this exercise. However, it allows you to have a much deeper and clearer conversation because this technique enables each of you to catch and correct any potential miscommunication before they run unchecked and ruin your interaction.
Between this exercise and the other notes on listening presented in this article you should have some solid ideas on how to make a significant effort in going beyond just hearing your partner (either in conversation or in life) and listening to them in a deeper and more significant manner. The benefits of this effort will be twofold:
First, you will have the benefit of better understanding those with whom you carry on conversations. You may be surprised at the depths of this new understanding and how shallow your understanding may have been before making a direct effort to really listen to others. We often think and would maintain that we understand those around us, but if we probe or question this understanding we are likely to find that, without direct effort to really listen, we have but a cursory and superficial understanding of what others are saying.
The second benefit will be that others are more likely to match your efforts to listen. When someone picks up on the fact that you are taking the time and effort to really attend to what they are saying, they are likely to make this a two-way street and make it reciprocal by attending deeply to you. Ultimately, it feels really good to be thoroughly heard by another. When you give this gift to others, you are likely to receive it back in return.
This series on communication has explored communication including the verbal messages we send (part 1), paraverbal and nonverbal communication (part 2), and listening (part 3). When all of these areas are addressed and harnessed, we are equipped to communicate as clearly as possible. This is not to say that misunderstandings or conflicts won’t happen, but we will have the tools to navigate through them and work towards resolutions that allow for us to feel connected and supported by those around us. As meaningful social connection is one of the cornerstones of good behavioral health, communication tools are some of the most important tools to have in our proverbial toolbox. I hope this series was helpful to you in either creating or sharpening these tools.