If you grew up in the 80s, chances are you’ll recognize the title of this post as lyrics from the hit song “Words” by Missing Persons. In fact, the whole song revolves around being heard and today's topic – active listening. In my last post I wrote about the critical role that communication plays in maintaining harmonious and successful relationships. A key part of good communication is active listening and, like communication skills, most of us think we’re pretty good listeners when in fact we’re not.
Active listening is a term used in counseling and also human resources, and is defined as “a technique which involves not only listening to the words someone uses, but also taking into account their tone of voice, their body language and other non-verbal signs in order to gain a fuller understanding of what they are actually communicating”. This is not as easy as it sounds because it’s human nature to want to share our point of view and tell our side of the story, especially in a debate or a heated conversation. Sometimes we’re so focused on our own feelings that we tend to get defensive and start formulating our response while the other person is still speaking, which results in our missing half of what the other person was saying and adding “fuel to the fire” via confusion and frustration.
Understanding that it is just as important for the other person to be heard as it is for you to be heard is key. Resisting the urge to interrupt when someone is expressing their viewpoint is important. Wait to hear everything the other person has to say. Then, in your own words, repeat what they just said. This is beneficial in 2 very important ways. First, it demonstrates that you were actually paying attention to their words (that in and of itself will be viewed as a positive in their eyes). Second, it allows you to confirm that what you heard is indeed what the other person meant, which helps to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. We are all unique and have different ways of expressing ourselves. Expecting that someone will automatically know what we mean just because they’ve known us for a long time is not realistic. Many things influence the way we communicate with others. Our experiences, culture, upbringing, our environment all contribute to the way we share our thoughts and feelings. This is why active listening is so important. By being present and attentive, we avoid making incorrect assumptions which can lead to resentment, more questions, and hurt feelings. Over time, these feelings can grow more intense and can cause a rift to form between two people. In some cases this leads to irreparable damage that ends in the demise of the relationship altogether.
Here are some great links to more information and tips on active listening. As an added bonus, I’ve also included a link to Missing Persons' video for “Words”. Enjoy!
Forbes: 10 Steps to Effective Listening
Become A Better Listener
WSJ: How "Active Listening" Makes Both Participants in a Conversation Feel Better
Video: Missing Persons - "Words"