How to Really Listen

by Terry L. Sumerlin

“I heard that!” Often we say this when we strongly agree with something that has been said, or when we know something to be true. My question is, “How often do we really hear that?”  In order for us to really hear what is being said, we have to really listen. How do we do that?

One requirement for really listening is really respecting the person speaking.  Showing respect to the speaker can be difficult sometimes.  Perhaps you have noticed how much easier it is to listen to some people than to others. There are those whose body language, tone of voice or word choice is distracting. And then there are those who never seem to get to the point.  We’ve all been in the rather challenging position of trying to listen to someone ramble on endlessly, when the speaker at last attempts to sum up the interminable yarn by saying, “Well, to make a long story short….” You want to scream, “You missed that opportunity an hour ago!”

Aside from the fact that some talkers make it hard for us to be good listeners, leaders nonetheless show respect by listening well to everyone.  That doesn’t mean everything everyone says is as gold, or that we must give everyone our attention forever. But it does mean that they are fellow human beings, and that we can learn something from everyone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”  I don’t think Emerson was saying that everything others might teach us is correct or that it is to be imitated.  From others we might learn what not to accept or practice.  But we can still learn from them.  Knowledge and wisdom come in all forms, but only to those who show respect by really listening to others.

Taking this thought a step farther, respect will lead us to be focused listeners. Among other things, this means that– without texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or anything else– we give the speaker the greatest compliment of all: our undivided attention.  Too often, not understanding is not a hearing issue.  It’s a focus issue.

Focusing involves eye contact and concentration.  It also involves awareness of distractions.  In addition to the technological distractions just mentioned, there are also those having to do with environment, prejudices, self-conscientiousness, stress or anxiety.

We might also include in this list those thoughts we are preparing to express in response and the urgency we feel to express them.  This feeling is a real listening challenge with many.  In fact, it has been humorously said that most would not bother listening at all, were it not for the expectation and hope that when the other person is through talking it will be their turn to talk.  Awareness is necessary before one can successfully eliminate this “urgency” and all other distractions that can affect our listening focus.

Once we become more aware, we are in a frame of mind to step up our focus by interacting with the one who is speaking.  This might involve such actions as leaning in, nodding, rewording various statements, smiling or interjecting one or two word responses of agreement and encouragement. We might also ask questions like why or how, in order to draw ourselves in and the speaker out.  These conversational tools help us to forget about ourselves and to focus our attention on the person talking.  These tools are the essence of effective listening – and class!

LEADERSHIP TIP: Effective listening starts in the heart, and spreads to the eyes and ears.




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