In today’s digital era, it seems increasingly more difficult to be present, to truly pay attention to the people around us, and to be a good listener. With technology becoming an integral part of our lives, an endless array of information — from communication, commercialism and various media — is invariably vying for our attention.
While technology can be a great time-saving and broad-reaching tool, it can also be a double-edged sword that shortens our attention spans by making us jaded or overstimulated. Amidst all the noise, we want to be heard; yet we are loath to listen.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Academy of Management, 78 percent of accredited undergraduate business schools list “presenting” as a learning goal, while only 11 percent identified “listening” as being equally important.
Why is it so important to be a good listener
Although it is rarely stressed, good listening is an invaluable skill that can benefit many areas of your life — including relationships, work, everyday interactions, and personal growth.
Good listening builds trust
A good listener is easy to talk to. People want to be heard, and they can recognize whether they have your attention or not. While talking to someone whose focus is divided is frustrating, having an attentive listener is satisfying, and people feel more willing to share.
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When you are only half listening, you only pick up half the information, or put it in the wrong order, or make erroneous connections… There are so many potential misunderstandings that could be avoided by careful listening.
The simple act of not listening on its own can lead to conflict. When a person is trying to communicate something and you show disinterest, they will feel disrespected. If this situation continues, they may feel that you’re not worth talking to, or give you a taste of your own medicine — by not giving you their attention when you have something to say.
Since people come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences, we are bound to have differences of opinion. A good listener is willing to set aside his own notions in order to understand someone else’s. This is the cornerstone for cultivating empathy.
Empathetic listeners connect easily with others and build stronger relationships because they show genuine interest, reduce conflict, and promote trust. Good listening can improve the quality of all your day-to-day interactions, be it with your co-workers, clients, friends or family.
Improves productivity and leadership
Good listening is not only important for social skills, it also improves your ability to understand and retain information. Rather than focusing on what they want to say, an attentive listener is actively absorbing and processing information, asking questions to clarify, and making important connections, all of which promote memory and the useful application of acquired knowledge.
Although the ability to speak well is often credited as the key to good leadership, listening well is equally – if not more important. When you are willing to listen to everyone else, you gain their respect by giving them yours. By making the effort to understand others, you strengthen your own skills and knowledge, and with an overall understanding of a collection of views, you become more effective at resolving conflicts.
Train your brain to listen
While listening skills are seldom taught in school, they can be learned; but it requires some re-thinking and training yourself to adopt new listening habits.
“When we actively listen, we practice mindfulness, we are present with those around us and we do not allow distractions to take away our focus on the most important thing in that moment: seeking understanding, showing compassion and demonstrating empathy,”Jonathan H. Westover Ph.D, The Power of Listening
There are several practices common among active and empathetic listeners that you can emulate to improve your skills. Try incorporating one new listening habit each day for a week:
- Commitment to paying attention: It may seem obvious, but it’s important to focus on the person speaking. To avoid distractions, start by putting away your devices; then set aside your personal concerns – including multitasking, and give both your ears and eyes to the speaker for the moment. Maintain eye contact, keep an attentive posture, and avoid fidgeting or looking bored.
- Practice active listening: Good listeners don’t just hear words, they are continuously processing, understanding and interpreting their meaning. Observe non-verbal cues to help you understand the speaker’s message, and use nonverbal cues — such as nodding and facial expressions — to continue the conversation and allow it to develop some depth.
- Don’t jump to conclusions: It’s easy to make assumptions about where the conversation is headed, but good listeners resist the urge to interrupt. Interjecting your own thoughts and opinions can kill the conversation; so be patient, and let the speaker finish their thoughts before responding.
- Empathize: Try to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and understand their perspective. By taking into consideration what you already know about the person, and assessing what their non-verbal cues are telling you, you can develop a better understanding of their feelings and needs.
- Be open-minded: It’s okay to disagree with someone, but try to approach the conversation with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Good listeners avoid criticizing or judging someone for their viewpoint — being receptive to other people’s beliefs and understandings can expand your own horizons. After all, if we all thought the same, there would be little to discuss and nothing to learn.
- Don’t be afraid of silences: In deep conversations, sometimes a pause is necessary for the speaker to think. When silences arise, we often try to fill the discomfort by talking; preventing the conversation from going deeper or becoming more meaningful. While silences can feel awkward, they don’t have to be — and there is no reason to fill them with meaningless chatter. A good listener may ask an appropriate question, or say a little something as encouragement to let a person know he is still listening.
- Reflect on what the speaker is saying: Paraphrase or summarize their points to show what you understand, and ask questions to clarify what you don’t. Make sure your response is meaningful and related to what they said. This shows that you are engaged in the conversation, and will encourage them to continue sharing their thoughts.
By following these steps you can master the art of listening and become more empathetic to friends, co-workers, and loved ones — thereby fostering a positive presence for everyone around you.
“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”-Dr. Karl Menninger, psychiatrist
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Ila Bonczek contributed to this report.