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Effective Listening

by Robert G. Waldvogel


Since listening is an integral part of the two-way communication cycle, it can be just as important as the speaking side of it. Yet few may think so and even fewer may have the tools or skills to do so effectively.

“…We seem to devote less and less time to really listening to one another,” advises Dianne Schilling, a founding partner of WomensMedia, in her article, “10 Steps to Effective Listening” (Internet, November 9, 2012). ““Genuine listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy… Listening builds friendships and careers. It saves money and marriages.”

It can also be perceived as deceptively simple. After all, if you inquired as to how a person is and he responds that he is fine, you would be forgiven for believing that you completely listened, because you heard exactly what he said.

While there are generic steps to effective listening--such as paying attention, demonstrating that you are doing that very listening, providing feedback, avoiding judgment, and responding appropriately--there are far greater angles, aspects, and perspectives to it.

The first of these can be labeled “selective listening.” In this case, the listener only hears what he considers important, interesting, or relevant to him, with the rest of the communication ignored, bypassed, or not even processed.

Another can be called “anticipatory listening.” In this case, the listener either anticipates what the speaker is about to say or altogether interrupts him as if he already has.

If you anticipate how you will comment or respond before the speaker completes his sentence, you need to question whose thoughts you are following—the speaker’s or your own.

Interjections such as these send many subtle messages, which themselves are forms of communication, such as “I’ve had enough of what you’ve said,” “I’m not interested in it,” “I don’t have the time to listen to what you think,” “I’m more important than you are,” and “I should be the center of attention here, not you.”

“Listen without jumping to conclusions,” continues Schilling (ibid). “Remember that the speaker is using language to represent the thoughts and feelings inside her brain. You don’t know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you’ll find out is by listening.”

Feedback, an important aspect of the process, not only requires attention, but interpretation, and this may not be as easy and accurate as may at first be apparent.

“Our present filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear,” according to the “Becoming an Active Listener” article in MindTools (Internet). “As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect on it and to ask questions.”

Yet personal restrictions and distortions may twist the intended meaning, especially if it is processed through the emotions instead of the intellect. Does it jar a trigger from a person’s past or stir up an unresolved hurt, for instance, whether it was caused by the current speaker or another? In this case, it may be difficult to separate past wounds from present communications, since the listener may erroneously believe that it is intended to spark the emotions that it does. Instead of striving for important detachment, he may be unable to distinguish between the two and just react.

Distortions are very similar. Does the listener really hear what is being said or does he filter and misinterpret it through his own lack of clarity?

In the classic play, 12 Angry Men, it was almost impossible to convince the last juror that the convicted was innocent and not the son who had hurt him and only someone who suggested him.

Accurate interpretation often entails other factors, like the silence that seems to scream something that has not been articulated, the protests that imply defenses, and the repetitions that indicate that the speaker himself does not believe what he says and that may be trying to convince himself more than the listener.

There are also nonverbal forms of communication the listener may need to “hear” if he wishes to increase the accuracy of his interpretation of it. Body language, for example, may say more than a person’s words, especially if the two do not coincide; and emotional energy may equally mismatch the auditory sounds. If, for instance, a person states that he is not angry about something, but the stress and strain he exhibits indicates otherwise, the listener may wish to place greater weight on it than the spoken words.

The listener may also need to examine his own motivations, especially in his responses. Does he, for instance, wish to control, berate, judge, correct, discipline, or derail the speaker?

He also needs to determine what that speaker is seeking, which can be labeled nothing more than “lend me an ear” listening.

After an Al-Anon member used various feedback responses to his wife and realized that none were effective, for instance, he amended his strategy.

“Suddenly I remembered my wife once explaining that sometimes she just needs someone to listen to her,” he said in the program’s Hope for Today text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 45). “She doesn’t want to be fixed or made to feel better: she just needs to be heard.”

Finally, there are circumstances in which you need to listen, despite the fact that you are the only one in the room.

In the first of these, you may need to listen to yourself to fully know and understand who you are and what makes you tick. What are your true feelings, motivations, beliefs, and desires? What do you think about yourself when you are alone and when you are with others, wearing your “outside world” face? Are they the same?

In the second, your sixth-sense or gut-feeling may be the most accurate gauge of truth, since the soul is the barometer of it when all other indications seem contrary to it.

And in the third, silence may foster a connection with God or the Higher Power of your understanding, enabling Him to communicate with you. Listening, in this case, could not be more important, since He is nothing but eternal truth.

Although it is doubtful that everyone you will meet during the rest of your life will only speak this truth, you can improve your ability to determine it by understanding the numerous aspects of the listening side of the communication process.

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury. He is a frequent contributor to Wisdom Magazine.


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