Engaging, Participating, Interacting, Creating – Fulfillment, Leadership, Organization, Wisdom

Experience the Joy of Listening

Posted by Herman Najoli on August 17, 2007

In a couple of hours I will be meeting a student for teh first time and one of my strategies today is simply to listen to my student and learn what his goals are. Listening is perhaps one of the most basic social skills but few people take the time to master the process of listening. One wag once joked that ‘we are given two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more and talk less’.

In keeping with the idea of listening, I’d like to look at the art of listening by way of an acrostic of the word LISTEN. 

How to Increase Your Listen-Ability Skills

One of the most painful things for a speaker is the realization no one is listening until when the speaker makes a mistake. The joy of conversation (or public speaking) is usually crucified by the luxury of half-listeners. Regaining the art of listening necessiates an ability to LISTEN. Here’s how:

Look at the speaker and focus on her words – This might seem as a very simple and easy thing to do but it’s among the top, most challenging skills for many people. Last week I was talking to a friend at the Global Center in downtown Cincinnati and she told me that she has always had a hard time looking at people during conversation. This is someone who works at a place where she rubs shoulders with dignitaries from all over the world! Some people choose to look over the speaker’s head. Eye-contact is essential to communicate a listening attitude.  

Indicate understanding by nodding affirmatively – I once mentored a teenager who had a huge problem with accepting my ideas. This was a really nice young man who had been brought up on the north side of Omaha in Nebraska. What I noticed with him was that, as adults approached him to speak with him, he would immediately go into a mode in which he would shake his head from side to side and look down at his feet. After lots of coaching sessions, he began nodding positively and that created a lot of room for him to start accepting my feedback.

Spot any distracters and put them out of your mind – We live in a society in which so much demands our attention. I’ve been in meetings where, all of a sudden, I’ve noticed my mind drifting away to other things that I’d rather be doing (well, some of the time the content – or was it the speaker? – may have been boring.) But really, that’s no reason to zone-out a speaker and go to lala land (lala is a Swahili word for sleep). When this happens we must consciously choose to put any distracting thoughts completely out of our minds. That’s the key to concentration, the glue of listening. 

Try not to think of what you are going to say next – My wife has a great illustration she normally uses when coaching people on their listening skills. She talks about this funny commercial in which there’s a lady being spoken to. During the entire time she is eating Doritos and has zoned out the speaker. This has been a huge area of personal growth for me in my marriage. I thought I had learnt all I needed about it from my mom only to find that I was still raw on this habit after I got married. Nowadays I have learnt to gain power over my thoughts and focus on the speaker, thanks to the two most important women in my my life.  

Engage actively by participating on your turn – The art of listening goes hand in hand with demonstrating an understanding of the spoken word. Active engagement might mean responding in a concise manner or taking notes that enhance your grasp of the content. Listening is not a one-sided activity. It’s dialogue. As you engage in dialogue, you need to be able to monitor your internal conversations. Internal conversation should be focused on the speaker, not on what you are going to say next. Healthy listening skills come from being able to enage with the speaker. It’s about connectedness that comes from each party’s ability to play their roles effectively.

Note key points and make it a point to remember them – Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about an “Indian talking stick” that was given to him by Indian chiefs. According to Indian culture, listeners were not permitted to say anything until the speaker passed the talking stick to them. The talking stick was never passed around until the speaker felt completely understood. What a beautiful way to communicate the sacredness of listening! Actually, here’s a link to the video where Stephen Cover talks about the Indian Talking Stick. It’s a great concept worth grasping fully.

Let’s regain the art of listening. Better listening not only enhances your knowledge of the topic but also communicates respect to the speaker. The key to being a great listener is to LISTEN. As my mother used to say, “Listening is one thing; hearing is another”. Let’s listen to hear.


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