Do you consider yourself a good listener? Would your friends or your partner say that you are a good listener? During my lifetime, I have discovered that it's not easy to be a good listener or to find someone who is genuinely interested in what you may have to say. Many people will hear the first couple of sentences and immediately change the subject to be about their personal experience without understanding what is being said. My favourite daily lessons is being able to observe how people interact with each other, even during COVID-19 more than ever. It appears to be even harder than ever before to find someone with all the skills of being a good listener.
Throughout my entire life, listening was taught as the most important skill to possess in order to survive. I didn't understand it at the time, but I as I became older it made perfect sense. Remember when your mother or father would ask you to do something, but you may have been watching a program on the television and responded with okay, but never moved away from the television? There was always something about the third threatening yell to get you moving. It was enough to make you listen and move quickly to avoid a spanking. Often my mother reminded me of Sergeant Carter from Gomer Pyle the way she would drill us to see if we were listening to everything she demanded. Often, she would switch the script and make up a story to see if we were following along. For me, I thought of it as a fun game to listen to every detail without interrupting and provide her with a play by play of the events. I became very good at it.
Being in a Stage-4 lockdown and under a curfew between 8p and 5A, and wearing a mask whenever you leave the house, makes it difficult for everyone to be a good listener during a time that it's extremely important to listen and to hear what the customer wants, the client needs, or what struggles a friend may be going through at this time. It's the same as being in a relationship that may already be under some strain, but nevertheless being a good listener rises to the top of the list. Let's face it, many of us have been taught to not listen for more than 20 seconds of what someone is saying because they are taking too long and it's easier to hijack the conversation by saying something like, "Hey, that reminds me of something that I went through a couple of years ago." That voice alone steals the moment and shuts down someone who trusted you to listen. Believe me, they won't trust you again to share anything because of the lack of patience and the excitement about responding without giving it your full attention and truly listening to what is being said and hearing what is needed.
A couple of weeks ago I was standing in line to get into a local bakery for coffee scrolls because they are delicious. Usually I talk to all the staff when I am in there but talking through a mask and sweating makes it more difficult for everyone. Once it was my turn to be served, I looked at the young man that has waited on me before and I said, hello can I have 6 coffee scrolls please. He wasn't responding until I looked into his eyes and he slowly said, "How are you today and how was your weekend?" I was stunned for a moment. It forced me to relax and take a deep breath because he refused to move forward until I responded how my day was going and if I had a great weekend, and he listened. Then I responded, how was your weekend and he took the time to tell me. I discovered the old me, even asking a few questions about his surfing and how often did he surf. He loved it and it reminded me of my active listening skills and the need to use them more.
As I walk around the neighbourhood that has been a very friendly community, I am noticing that people are less friendly than before. A lot of it is that you can't see if anyone is smiling or happy because they are covered up with masks, caps or hoodies because it's a bit chilly or dark glasses if it's a sunny day. What I enjoy most about COVID is that it pushes you right out of your comfort zone and forces you to create a new norm that right for you. My partner knows how to move his eyebrows up and down to show that he is smiling or laughing or showing some facial emotion. My brows don't move at all and the mask covers most of my face. If I put on my dark glasses, they are usually fogged up from breathing in the mask. If I put on a cap, forget it, no one would recognise me at all. I could easily be Danny DeVito, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, or Barack Obama. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so real. I am still working through the kinks of getting my hearing and speaking in sync so I can better understand people, as well as myself.
Through my various walks of life, I have found that very few people possess good active listening skills because they have never been taught them or it's not something that they feel is necessary. When I worked for organisations, I was always amused how most managers and directors lacked good active listening skills. Staff would line up to open their hearts to share difficult stories and issues happening in the workplace. I would watch managers cut them off in the middle of their story, turn the presentation into their own story, continue checking their mobile devices for text messages or emails and give their opinion of what the staff person should do although the response never made any sense because they were not listening. It was no surprise to me when all of the great staff people seeking help would leave the organisation due to the lack of support as a result of the inability to listen and to hear what was happening. It occurred over and over again.
But working in my own business was very different. If you truly open yourself up to receive lessons from life, you may be amazed by the results. In working with public relations and marketing clients, active listening was a key ingredient in assisting my clients to be successful on every level. Active listening was that main ingredient. Every meeting started with listening to what the client wanted to achieve, also hearing all the non-verbal messages that the clients were sharing through their body or non-verbal language. Being an active listener taught me to be extremely sensitive and aware to everything happening in the life of my clients. They were always overwhelmed when I summarised the conversation and included their non-verbal messages.
For years I wondered why many people were not good listeners. Sitting quietly with yourself can unveil so much information. When you are quiet with yourself you can hear so much more. Most people, without their knowledge, are trained to respond and not to listen to an entire conversation. We are taught to hijack any conversation and redirect to our own story, give unwanted recommendation or prescribe the problem with solutions that worked for us. Trust me, this is the fastest way to lose credibility and trust with a friend, a co-worker, a client, spouse or partner. It shouts loud and clear that I am not listening to you because I know what you need to do and listen to my story because I have the solution. It's the biggest mistake ever.
According to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention." Being in a relationship with someone who doesn't listen to hear what you may not be saying can be the most difficult and frustrating or if they are ready to diagnose your problem when you aren't asking for a prescription.
So, what are the ingredients to be an active and alert listener to friends, family members, partners, co-workers and clients? Active listening
Establishing the habit of active listening can have many positive impacts on your life. In relationships, active listening may allow you to understand the point of view of another person and respond with empathy. It also allows the opportunity to ask questions to make sure you understand what has been shared. The best part is that it validates the speaker and makes them want to share more with you. Being an active listener in a relationship means that you recognise that the conversation is more about your partner than about you. This is an important fact when your partner may be distressed. Great active listening helps us to be less likely to jump in with a quick fix when the other person really just wants to be heard and nothing more. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, don't expect any empathy or for them to listen to you without using it against you.
At work, active listening is important if you are in a supervisory position or interact with colleagues. Active listening allows you to understand problems and collaborate to develop solutions. It also reflects your patience, a valuable skill in any workplace.
In social situations, active listening will benefit you as you meet new people. Asking questions, seeking clarification, and watching body language are all ways to learn more about the people whom you meet. When you listen actively, the other person is also likely to speak to you for a longer time. This makes active listening one of the best ways to turn acquaintances into friends.
- Make eye contact while the other person speaks. You should aim for eye contact about 60 to 70% of the time while you are listening as opposed to looking at your phone or your watch. Avoid folding your arms as this signal you are not listening and may be bored.
- Summarise what has been said rather than offering unsolicited advice or opinions.
- Don't interrupt while the other person is talking. Never prepare your reply while the other persons speaking. It's an insult.
- Observe nonverbal behaviour to pick up on hidden meanings, in addition to listening to what is said. Remember, facial expressions, tone of voice and other behaviours can often tell you more than words alone.
- You can show interest by asking questions to clarify what is said. Ask open-ended questions to encourage a deeper conversation.
- Never change the subject, it will make the person talking believe that you were not listening at all.
- Try to be non-judgemental while listening.
- Patience is truly golden. We can sometimes listen faster than others can speak.
So, are you a good active listener in your relationship, with your friends, in your family, with your co-workers, with your children or even with your pets?
My challenge for you is to observe what's happening around you. Even during the age of COVID, I see couples taking walks together, just like before, nothing has changed. They are still walking or sitting and having a lovely coffee together staring into the face of their mobile phones. From where I am standing, there is no listening or talking to each other. My mask could be blocking my view but I only see misery on the faces of so many couples.
I would love to hear your active listening experiences.