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I hear(t) you

March 26, 2019

Ever wondered why we have two ears but only one mouth? Well, it’s International Listening Month - a great opportunity to remind ourselves what it means to really listen. Whether you are a natural listener or need to work on it, read on for insights on how to really hear what your colleagues and peers are telling you.

Listening is just one of the tools we have to interact in the world. By listening to we learn to communicate - to form letters and words, to decode emotions, to recognise safety and danger, to appreciate beautiful music. Even before we were born, we learnt to identify our mother’s voice and distinguish it from other voices.

It is almost a given that because we can hear, we assume that we can listen. But most adults do not listen well. Our ability to listen is compromised by forces that divert and distort our attention - personal beliefs, preferences, prejudices and the desire to assert ourselves. It’s ironic that most of us think we’re good listeners but few of us think we're listened to. This should probably tell us something about our own skills!

As a quick test, ask yourself if you are ever guilty of any of the following listening habits:

  • Interrupting the speaker
  • Not looking at the speaker
  • Rushing the speaker and making him/her feel that they’re wasting your time
  • Showing interest in something other than the conversation
  • Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing his/her thoughts
  • Not responding to the speaker's requests
  • Topping the speaker's story with “That reminds me. . .” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about. . .”
  • Forgetting what was talked about previously
  • Asking too many questions about details
  • Walking away from a conversation and not remembering anything you’ve heard
Cuban proverb: Listening looks easy but it's not simple. Every head is a world.

It is a true act of generosity to get out of your world and enter another person's world. It's hard work to turn down the internal dialogue and focus your attention on another person, to suspend your assumptions until you can clearly understand what their world is about.

Listening from the heart is the basis of ‘active listening’. It is committed, focused attention on the speaker’s words and the meanings of those words. It is being with the speaker, in the present, using all the senses to learn what that which is important to the speaker. Listening with your heart means listening with the intent to understand rather than the intent to reply.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Here are the 3 steps to active listening:

  1. Listen well (let go of your own ideas, roles, agendas and don’t interrupt while someone is speaking!)
  2. Let others know you’re listening (ask questions, use facial expressions and verbal sounds .‘Mmm-hmm’)
  3. Summarise what others have said (so the speaker feels heard and can confirm or correct your understanding)

Your heart is the most important organ in the active listening process. Listening from the heart requires a genuine focus on the speaker’s words, meanings and feelings. Next time someone is speaking to you, especially in difficult situations i.e. dealing with complaints or disagreement, do a quick check to see how well you are listening and remember to respond from the heart!