by Brian Bell
"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
This is an amusing statement, and it does make people laugh, but, regrettably, it is not far from the truth in describing how we humans frequently communicate with one another.
Failure to listen brings adverse results. The sound of words reach the eardrum, but much of the time the hearer does not translate it into a message to be understood by the brain. Listening is very different from hearing. Much is being said about the importance of communication, but most of the emphasis is on the effectiveness of the speaker's reaching the listener. Not sufficient recognition is devoted to a person's ability to listen to others, to comprehend as much as possible, not just facts, but intent and emotional overtones as well.
Marriages fall apart, children and parents are alienated, friendships fail, and business deals do not come off simply because people do not understand others, although they think they do. They fail to listen.
This regrettable situation results from a number of factors, and the first of these is the pervasive belief that if there is a failure to understand it is the fault of the speaker. The problem frequently is that the listener is so passive, so detached, and so easily distracted that he or she just fails to get the message. Archie Bunker complained that he spoke in English, but his wife listened in ding-bat.
Good listening has important value and can be learned, and improved, to yield enormous benefits. The process is called "active listening." It takes effort, but everyone can and should learn to do it. Furthermore, it is a simple fact that when you are talking, you are not learning!
What Interferes With Listening:
A good beginning is a recognition of those factors which interfere with effective listening:
Turning a speaker off and dwelling on the plethora of internal distractions we all have.
Letting an early remark of a speaker, with which one disagrees, develop a prejudice which clouds or puts a stop to any further listening. It is better to wait until the message has been delivered before judging.
Allowing personal characteristics of the speaker or his poor delivery to prevent understanding.
A prominent attorney was once questioning me in his client's lawsuit. On this occasion I should have been acutely alert in my own speech and hearing. However, he had only combed the very front part of his hair that day, and the rest of his head looked like a rat's nest. This was very distracting, and I kept wanting to say, "Go look in the mirror." It was not his hair, but my reaction that was a problem, and what a minor element it was to distract me on an important occasion!
Some speakers can deliver what they have to say with charm, wit, and charisma. Audiences may love it, but they haven't heard anything of importance. Others can speak with convincing sounding authority but may have false messages. Some very dull speakers may have concepts of real importance to communicate, but they are lost on those who turn them off. It is an essential part of good listening to discern the differences.
It would be most helpful if speakers would analyze their audiences, determine clearly the message, not get distracted by digressions or details which may be interesting to them but not to the audience, and present their material clearly. But this does not happen frequently. It is up to the listener to get the most out of it and to learn something from it no matter how many negative factors there are.
It is a false assumption that a person through an act of will, can listen and absorb the message on a special occasion, just as effectively as a person who has trained himself or herself in this area. Some subjects are indeed sufficiently gripping to cause one to desire to comprehend all, but good listening is a learned behavior, and can be summoned up to its fullest extent for use only after it has been developed through practice and application. A person who is a poor tennis player cannot suddenly become a good one by resolving to do so, nor can a poor listener suddenly become a good one by an act of will.
So, how is this listening ability developed? First, by realizing its importance, and then by practice. Try to review what you learned and remembered from a lecture or a meeting. It helps to review with a partner with whom you can practice. A beneficial addition is to pretend you are going to have to give a report on the speech to an important group; even more beneficial is to plan to give an actual report, as described in Chapter 24, "Summarizing".
Up to this point, we have been discussing listening as it relates to public speaking, but it is even more important in interpersonal relationships. Most people believe that there is something weak about listening as opposed to talking, possibly resulting from the need to play one-upmanship. Too many people blunder through life never knowing what other people are thinking, but all the while assuming that they do. Human beings want to express themselves, to be heard, and it is regrettable that so frequently when a person describes a problem, listeners just wait for him or her to stop talking so that they can tell how bad things are for them also.
It is helpful to understand that there are different kinds of interpersonal exchanges. At the beginning of a relationship, we indulge in small talk or conversation. Some people think of this as just idle "chit-chat," and one writer refers to it as "tribal noises," and there is some merit to this latter expression. The fact is that it is very important in getting to know each other and learning of one another's interests, perhaps mutual ones. Some people are very good at this and as a result are thought of as being friendly.
Other times those speaking are trying to communicate facts to us, and this certainly calls for attentive listening. One might think that the ability to remember facts as they are presented in a conversation would not be affected by previous practice and training, but experience indicates otherwise. On different occasions others are trying to persuade us to do something or to accept an opinion, and this takes skill in evaluation and interpretation. People can hear four times faster than others can talk, which gives a skilled listener time to sort matters out. Of course, most conversations are a combination of these elements, that is, remembering facts and evaluating content.
Barriers to Interpersonal Listening:
Let us understand some of the elements which interfere with personal communication. Obviously, as with listening to a public speaker, the first of these is just not caring. A listener must have real concern for a person who is expressing his or her inner thoughts and emotions to be fully receptive. It is a tragic fact that newlyweds report excellent communication, second only to sharing with a best friend, which is always on top of the list, but regrettably, for many this diminishes with time.
Another is interrupting, also called "pouncing," probably the most destructive element there is in personal communication. In conversation, people do not always talk in the most logical manner. They express themselves spontaneously, jumping about at times, and are often disorganized. The listener has the challenge of following the flow, putting pieces together, and waiting for the meaning to become clear. Yet, this, too, is a skill which can be developed. If there is something which is unclear, the speaker may shortly get around to explaining it, so it is frequently better to wait than to interrupt.
There are times, of course, when a listener is completely lost and needs clarification. Then a question is appropriate. However, to the extent possible, it is helpful to save questions for a suitable point and not interfere with the speaker's thought process.
The worst kind of interruption takes place when something a speaker says triggers a thought on the part of the listener who then jumps in with his or her story and takes the conversation off on a tangent. Obviously, the first person can feel completely frustrated as a result of not having had a chance to finish.
If the desire is to listen, it is necessary to put one's own emotions on hold. We all have touchy points, but if one of these intervenes, it can blow the whole effort of a person's trying to communicate. This can also take place if the listener is easily distracted. If you are not giving normal concentration, it is conveyed to the speaker in nonverbal ways, even if you murmur the polite words used in our society. You cannot pretend. It is all too apparent.
We rarely realize the extent and effect of non-verbal communication. This is illustrated by a situation which showed a dramatic result of communication when not a word was spoken or written. A psychology class was studying behavior reinforcement and modification. One day the professor was late and a student got up to suggest an interesting plan to stop him from his annoying habit of pacing back and forth across the stage. The proposal was met with enthusiasm, so when the professor moved to the left of the stage, the students leaned forward, and looked interested. When he moved to the right, they leaned back and looked bored. Despite the fact that he was a psychology professor, he did not realize that his students were modifying his behavior.
The following day, the dean of the college, who learned about the event, called the head of the psychology department to find out why Dr. Simpson was giving his 10:00 o'clock lecture from the left rear of the stage, rather than from his usual position at the podium. Upon inquiry, a confused and embarrassed Dr. Simpson said he did not know why. It just seemed more effective that way. Fortunately, when the whole story came out, Dr. Simpson was a good sport; in fact, he had a fine illustration of the effect of non-verbal communication for his future classes.
Listening as a way to help another person,
sometimes called "cathartic" listening.
An exceedingly important type of communication between one person and another involves the process of releasing emotions, sharing problems, and ventilating feelings. The word "cathartic" implies a cleansing of emotions.
What are the positive actions that can be taken to illustrate empathy when a person is expressing emotion, discussing problems or frustrations, or ventilating feelings? The important factors are to be caring, concerned, and non-judgmental. The speaker is letting you enter his or her private world and you must be sensitive with regard to the feelings expressed without offering your own opinions.
Your demonstration that you are really with the person, that you do understand, can be communicated in non-verbal ways. A nod of the head, a smile, raised eyebrows, and gestures can all indicate agreement. Expressions in the eyes are very telling, as well as an alert posture.
In addition to favorable expressions and gestures, there are some things which can be said to an emotional speaker, simple expressions of encouragement. They not only feed back what the sender's message means, but they add up to the language of acceptance.
The first type of verbal responses can be called "door openers", such as:
"Mm - mmmmm."
"Uh - Huh."
"You don't say."
"How about that!"
Then, there are stronger expressions which convey an invitation to say more, and also indicate a real interest on the part of the listener, such as:
"Tell me the whole story."
"Let's discuss it."
"Shoot, I'm listening."
"This sounds like something important."
"What did you do then?"
"What did he say when you said that?"
What is the value of such active listening experiences in terms of personal relationships? What are the benefits? The speaker, your friend or relative, may be able, just through describing the situation, to redefine the problem, develop insights, and make a good start toward, if not actually reach, a solution.
This person is given a new good feeling as a result of being treated as worthy, respected, significant, and interesting. Furthermore, there is a new relationship of warmth between the two individuals, based on trust and understanding. The experience of being heard and understood by another person is so satisfying that it invariably makes the sender have warm regard for the listener.
People free themselves of troublesome feelings when they are encouraged to express themselves openly. Indeed, after such expressions, their anger, hurt, or whatever their emotion might be, often seems to disappear. Active listening fosters this kind of catharsis.
The listener, in successful experiences of active listening, is bound to get a sense of pleasure and satisfaction from seeing the results. A 57-year-old man once said to me, with amazement and gratitude, "Nobody ever listened to me to the end before."
The effectiveness of the experience can be increased by having the listener inquire, "Would you like me to tell you what I believe you said?" There is rarely, if ever, a turn down to this offer. If a person has had some practice in active listening, this is not as difficult as it sounds, and the sender of the message is frequently amazed. "You really did listen. I can't believe it." There is nothing you can do that will convince a person to a greater degree of your interest than to quote what was said at a later time.
A listener did not realize how successful a listening experience was. A man called on an old lady and came back saying, "I couldn't do a thing for her. She talked the whole time, and I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise if I had wanted to. All I could do was listen." The response was, "That was the best thing you could have done. Many old people are lonely and they have a real need for someone to talk to who will listen. It makes them feel accepted and recognized."
A clergyman received a call from a husband at about 2:00 AM to hear this message, "You were present the moment our marriage began, and we want you to come over for the moment it ends." Getting dressed, he went to their home to see what the trouble was. It was an argument which began over a tricycle in the driveway, although the problem was of much longer standing. They had been giving each other the silent freeze act for the previous six weeks, communicating only through the children. The clergyman said practically nothing although he was attentive and listened as they screamed at each other, vented their emotions, and tried to justify their respective positions to him. After two hours, they had hashed out their problems and were reconciled. They thanked the minister for all he had done, and he departed.
When The Emotion Is Directed at You:
Another case of active listening deserves special emphasis. Sometimes a friend or a relative comes roaring in, hot as a fire-cracker, with a big grievance. This is a time to listen, even though it puts a strain on all of the listening techniques you have learned. It is important to listen TO THE END. Hearing the speaker out diffuses the emotion. It helps, when the person is apparently through, to say, "Is there anything you would like to add?" The answer usually is, " No. Oh, yes there is. And another thing..." This little episode can be repeated two or three times, but in the end, there can be no complaint about not having been given enough time.
This kind of situation calls for more than knowledge about listening. It calls for willpower, because, part of the way through, the speaker comes out with some outrageous remark that you feel you must put straight immediately. The trouble is that, if you do this, it sends the whole exchange off on tangential arguments, and the person with the grievance gets more and more frustrated in not being able to reach the important point. Do your best to remember remarks to be countered later, but let the person finish. You will benefit from the fact that the anger has diminished markedly.
When you begin your response, part way through, you might make a remark equally as outrageous to the other person as the one, or several you heard. To keep from being stopped, it is appropriate to say, "I heard you out, so please do the same for me. You will have all the time you want later to respond." This is a very helpful approach, which works -- sometimes. I once saw a man prevent interruptions by holding up his hand with palm facing the speaker like a policeman saying, "Stop." I will leave it up to you if you would like to use this. All I can say is it worked.
Probably the most frequent violations in terms of listening take place in the most important area of human interchange, that is, in ordinary conversation. The contention might be, "If I am concentrating so hard on listening, can I have any enjoyment in talking to friends?" The fact is that good listening becomes so automatic, you cease to be aware that you are doing it, and it need not interfere with your fun. Furthermore, it probably will make you a better and more enjoyable conversationalist. You might even stop being an interrupter if you are one.
If you make an analysis of it, what passes for conversation is frequently just serialized monologues, with each person not so much listening to the other as phrasing in his or her mind what he or she would like to say next when it is possible to break in. This is by far the most frequent explanation of non-listening, and it should be emphasized so that we will become more conscious of the occasions when we are engaging in this very common practice. With a little effort on the part of participants, active listening can make conversations more meaningful, and deepen friendships.
A little-recognized value of listening and inquiring relates to the realization that in human relationships, it is frequently not what the facts are, but what people think the facts are, which is truly important. There is benefit in learning what someone else's concept of the reality of the situation is, no matter how wrong it might be. Otherwise, there can be the frustrating experience of talking on two entirely different planes.
After critiquing this chapter, a woman said, "I wish I could have read this when I was 20."
My response was, "I wish I could have, too. And 30. And 40."
Permission is given to reproduce any or all parts of this book.
The author's wish is to share this with others
with the hope that it will be of help to as many people as possible.