Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Of all the conversations that go on each day, when was the last one where you felt like someone had really listened?
The importance of listening is underestimated, and the art of almost listening is so common that many of us have forgotten what its like to be really listened to. I often facilitate Introduction to Coaching training, and we always have a listening exercise early on. You know, the really simple exercise of just listening to your partner speak for 3 minutes without interrupting, or speaking. Its amazing how often someone just can't keep silent for 3 minutes, and sadly, even more common that the person talking feels uncomfortable just being listened to. So is listening truly a lost art?
There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak. Simon Sinek
The trouble is, most of the time, we really do think we are listening to someone. We feel sure we must be listening because we know when its our turn to speak, and how we are going to respond, so we must have been listening, mustn't we? Well, no. Turns out that listening, really good listening, takes a lot more effort than most of us put in.
Let's start by considering the 'not listeners'. There is more than one type of 'not listening'. The first is easily spotted. Although you are talking to them they do not respond to you, don't make any eye contact, no nodding or smiling. In fact one of two things generally happens. Either you stop speaking and they look round and ask you if you said something, or you end up tapping them on the arm and asking them if they heard you. Aside from appearing rude they are otherwise no problem, as you are left in no doubt they did not take in anything that was said.
The next group of 'not listeners' are the pretend listeners. You will come across these at home and at work in particular. They take in some of the words, and are paying just enough attention to know where there is a pause, or perhaps when a response is required. There is often a slight delay before they answer while they try to assemble just enough information to decide how to respond. This group will often smile and nod, and often appear to be agreeing with what you have to say. And that is where the danger lies. Their non-verbal nodding and smiling, give the impression they have heard you and agree. Whereas the reality is they were listening to what was on the tv or reading an email and are mostly clueless as to what you actually said.
This includes the data listeners. These are the people who listen to your words, but somehow miss the tonality of the voice, or the emotion, or where the emphasis on the words is. They can often repeat back word for word what was said, and yet somehow missed the meaning entirely. For most people the largest proportion of the message in face to face communication is through body language and voice tonality; in fact in Mehrabian's study only 7% of the communication was the actual words. So when we encounter a data listener it can be very frustrating that they appear to be 'deliberately' misunderstanding.
Then there are those who listening in order to speak. They are really waiting for their turn and will give off all the necessary non-verbal signals that they are listening, whilst finding ways to make that fit with what they want to say next. This is probably the most common conversation with each taking turns to speak, and appear interested until their turn to speak again.
This takes effort, and occurs when someone really wants to know what you think. Most commonly found amongst coaches and counsellors, or that really good friend. When someone is really listening they will be paying attention to not only the words you use, and the clues that lie with both what you say, and what you don't, but also to the tone of voice and all of the body language that accompanies the conversation. They will repeat back to you some of the things you've said, to check understanding, or paraphrase to make sure they have taken the meaning you meant to give. They will ask for clarification, and really importantly, they will listen with curiosity rather than judgement.
If you really want to listen to someone, turn off your assumptions. When someone is telling you about a problem turn off the assumption that they want you to tell them how to fix it. Coaches will use questions, not answers. They will help you find your own best answer, uncover the things you are pretending not to know, or that you have hidden from yourself. Best of all coaches know the importance of silence, that space to think. So if you have ever had the gift of a really good listening to, think about who you might pass that gift onto, when someone else might really benefit from just knowing they have been heard.