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Listening Well Requires Action: Here's How to Do It

I never came to realize just how much of an exercise listening truly is until I entered the behavioral health field. For years, I mistakenly thought that listening was a passive thing; you know, doesn't require any real work. That is true for hearing. But not listening. Let me explain. Depending on where you are in the world and your cultural and financial circumstances, you may have a heating system or cooling system on at this moment. Even though you can hear it, you may not really pay any conscious attention to it, unless something prompts bringing it to your level of awareness. You may hear birds chirping or the swoosh of cars as they travel down the road. However, you aren't really actively listening for these sounds unless something prompts your awareness to them. Those in the hearing world, hear a lot of things; however, that doesn't mean we are actively listening to them.

When you find yourself, mm-hmming or uh-huhing during conversations, chances are, you are not listening well. Not in every case, but in majority of the cases. Listening is so much more involved than that. Over the last few weeks, we have delved into the various aspects of effective communication. Our first article in our effective communication series, "Are You Listening Though? 4 Intentions of Effective Communication," explored pitfalls of pseudo-listening and instead encouraged practicing listening with the 4 intentions in mind. Our next two articles explored blocks to listening well. How many of the 12 do you think you can recall? Now as we close out the year with our final blog post for this year, we will wrap up our discussion on effective communication with an examination of what action is required to listen well. If we want to have more fulfilling relationships (business, school, work, home life, social), practicing the art and skill of active listening is crucial. There is a three-step process that will assist us in developing this skill.

Step 1: Paraphrase

The picture is only to catch your attention because aren't parrots such interesting, colorful birds? But please know that paraphrasing and parroting are not the same thing. A parrot has the ability to repeat back words that you say, however, that does not mean that they are digesting and understanding what was said. Avoid parroting. Paraphrasing is totally different. When we paraphrase, we use our own words to restate back what someone else has said. There are several reasons why paraphrasing is effective. First, it helps make the conversation easier to remember. Second, it helps us to avoid many of the listening blocks from our previous two articles. There is no time to mind read, rehearse what you will say next, daydream, argue, or focus on being right. Third, it helps to defuse situations during those heated moments. People just want to be heard. Paraphrasing shows that we are trying to hear them and provides opportunities for any misinterpretations to be cleared up. Which leads to step 2.

Step 2: Clarify

We should never assume that we've understood everything perfectly the first time. With that in mind, think of the skill of clarifying as an extension of paraphrasing. You are doing more than just stating back in your own words what you believe you heard the other person share. It gives you an opportunity to ask questions, not in one of those gotcha kind of moments. Rather, to ask questions to make sure you are understanding what is being communicated. Especially in those emotionally charged moments, people aren't always clear and further elaboration is needed. Clarifying allows us to get more information to fill in any gaps in the communication without us assuming what those gaps are.

Step 3: Provide feedback

The final step in this process and the trickiest. Providing feedback. You've paraphrased. You've clarified. Now it's your turn to share what you feel about what you heard and how you felt while listening. Now listen carefully. There is a formula to this and it can be so easy to fly off the hinges here or stumble and get trapped into the net of those blocks to listening i.e. arguing, giving your advise, or derailing by cracking a joke to lighten the mood. Again, there is a formula. To use this skill effectively, your feedback must be immediate, honest, and supportive. I know we are the generation of texters now. To be immediate doesn't mean to wait hours and text a response. It needs to occur while the topic is fresh, you have paraphrased, you have clarified, and you and the person are still on the same page. Your feedback should also be both honest and supportive, thus eliminating the listening block of placating.

What do you think? Among the three steps outlined (paraphrase, clarify, provide feedback), which do you find most challenging in practice? Why? Tell us down in the comments below.


Listen with empathy: Try to imagine being in their shoes. That doesn't mean you have to agree. Just try to understand what they may have been thinking and feeling.

Listen with openness: If your mind is closed, you can't hear the whole message. We are not comparing our thoughts, feelings, or beliefs with theirs. Instead, be curious. Look at it as an opportunity to learn something new.

Listen with awareness: The comparing here is different. So read closely. Here we show awareness by comparing what we hear with known facts. Listening with awareness also involves comparing what is said with how the person is acting. Are the two congruent or incongruent? Is there a mismatch?

Being a good listener is the key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships. This means making effort to not slip into pseudo-listening and not getting stumbled by the various blocks to listening. We all have unique thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences that make up who we are. However, we do well to not allow these to distort what others are actually communicating to us. We should listen with the intentions of understanding, enjoying, learning, and helping. This requires we have empathy, be open, and have awareness. This is how we grow and how we grow relationships. And please remember, as you begin this journey, do not worry about getting it perfect; just get it going. Until next time. Happy reading.

"Communication works for those who work at it." ~ John Powell


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