March is International Listening Awareness Month. So let me help build your awareness of the power of listening and how to effectively wield that power.

First of all, you need to recognize what good listening is not. Obviously, it is not marginal listening—giving half an ear to the speaker while you’re watching television, reading the paper, or working on your computer. You might be surprised to know it’s also not evaluative listeningwhere you do hear the gist of what the speaker says, but you’re evaluating the content so you can prepare your response. The dead give away when you use this type of listening is when your response starts out with, “Yes, but…”

The best and most powerful form of listening is “active listening.” It fulfills two very basic human needs—to be heard and to be understood. There are three crucial steps to active listening. Think of the acronym EAR to help you remember these steps:

1.      Engage the speaker.  In other words, show the speaker that you’re listening by looking him in the eye, nodding occasionally, showing appropriate facial expressions (a smile for good news, concern for distressing news). Project open and relaxed body language.  Also keep in mind that total silence does not imply listening.  Give vocal signals such as: “mm-hmm,” “yes,” “really?,” “I see,” etc.

2.      Actually hear what’s being said. This means you have to pay attention and process the information. You must concentrate on the content of the message, which is what the speaker is saying, plus the intent, which is what she’s feeling or what she means. It may help by repeating to yourself her key words or main ideas and also observing the nonverbal cues she’s giving.

3.      Respond appropriately. This third step is the key to effectively wielding the power of listening. Instead of saying, “Yes, but…”, you let the other party know you’ve heard and understood him. It can take three forms:

  • Paraphrasing. This means repeating the gist of the message. It’s generally preceded by, “So what you’re saying is…” or “In other words…” or “If I understand you correctly…” The ability to do this
    lets the speaker know you did in fact hear the content of  what he said. The amazing thing about paraphrasing is that once people feel like you heard them, they can be more receptive and open to what you have to say.
  • Probing. This is a particularly important technique in diffusing the tension that comes with disagreement. After the speaker has made a statement, instead of launching into your rebuttal, you probe for more information. “Why do you think that?” “What’s the downside to that?” “Can you give me some examples?” This lets the speaker know you’re interested in hearing his side, which in turn will make him more likely to listen to your side.
  • Reflecting back feelings. This is the finer-tuned skill of interpreting how the speaker feels about what she said. “You must be so proud,” or “That certainly must have made you angry,” or “I imagine you’re very hurt by that…” are examples of reflecting. This is the ultimate validation a speaker can receive: being heard and being understood. When you give that gift to others, it opens doors, breaks down barriers, reduces anger, decreases resistance.

Listening actively is a magical skill. Its mastery can have a profound, positive impact on your presence.


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