Are you listening?

When two persons listen to each other, they learn from each other
The ignored spouse craves the attention of the other, which is missing even when the former has heard the other." [Representational Image]
The ignored spouse craves the attention of the other, which is missing even when the former has heard the other." [Representational Image] Wikimedia Commons/ Matt @ PEK

To listen well is not only a kindness to others but also a gift to ourselves. (Carl Rogers)

The most common refrain in the conversation between the spouses, as you all may be aware, is: “Are you listening?” In Hindi it is: “Ae Ji sunte ho? In Kashmiri it is: “Bozaan Chhukha?

It is not that one of the spouses has not heard the other, the problem arises when he or she does not listen. The ignored spouse craves the attention of the other, which is missing even when the former has heard the other.

Obviously, there is a lot of difference between hearing and listening.

The art of listening is about finding out what the speaker thinks about something. When two persons listen to each other, they learn from each another.

In a group, listening enables a free flow of ideas that are truly listened to. This can lead to a workplace where employees are constantly learning from one another and in the process also develop respect for one another.

Most people think that to become a good communicator they have to focus on becoming great speakers. While not berating the merits of articulate speaking, it may be said that listening is just as important as speaking in the communication process.

Whether one is dealing with co-workers, managers, or clients, being a good speaker and a great listener are crucial workplace skills. Our ability to listen properly can give us insight into the rationale behind decisions and a better understanding of what the speaker is trying to accomplish. At the family level, these skills can remove a lot of misunderstandings.

Being a good listener, however, isn’t always easy. Studies have shown that the average person can only remember 50% of what they’ve heard straight after they’ve heard it. Another study has shown that only 10% of the initial message communicated is retained after 3 days. The reason for these shocking statistics is that most of us think of listening as a passive process that requires no effort.

Writing in Esquire magazine in 1935, Ernest Hemingway offered this advice to young writers: “When people talk, listen completely… Most people never listen.”

As a culture, we treat listening as an automatic process about which there is not a lot to say: in the same category as digestion, or blinking. When the concept of listening is addressed at any length, it is in the context of professional communication; something to be honed by leaders and mentors, but a specialisation that everyone else can happily ignore.

This neglect is a shame. Listening well is a sort of magic trick: both parties soften, blossom, they are less alone. “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me,” said Henry David Thoreau, “was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

The active listener’s job is to simply be there, to focus on ‘thinking with people instead of for or about them’. This thinking with requires listening for what Rogers calls ‘total meaning’.

This means registering both the content of what they are saying, and (more subtly) the ‘feeling or attitude underlying this content’. Often, the feeling is the real thing being expressed, and the content a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy.

Capturing this feeling involves real concentration, especially as nonverbal cues – hesitation, mumbling, changes in posture – are crucial. Zone out, half-listen, and the ‘total meaning’ will entirely eludeus.

When listening to a speaker’s message, it is common to sometimes overlook aspects of the conversation or make judgments before all of the information is presented.

Listeners often engage in confirmation bias, which is the tendency to isolate aspects of a conversation to support one’s own pre-existing beliefs and values. This psychological process has a detrimental effect on listening for several reasons.

First, confirmation bis tends to cause listeners to enter the conversation before the speaker finishes the message and, thus, form opinions without first obtaining all pertinent information.

Second, confirmation bias detracts from a listener’s ability to make accurate critical assessments. For example, a listener may hear something at the beginning of a speech that arouses a specific emotion.

Whether anger, frustration, or anything else, this emotion could have a profound impact on the listener’s perception of the rest of the conversation.

At occasions the listener is focusing on style, not Substance. Distracting or larger-than-life elements in a speech or presentation can deflect attention away from the most important information in the conversation or presentation.

These distractions can also influence the listener’s opinion. Cultural differences (including speakers’ accents, vocabulary, and misunderstandings due to cultural assumptions) can also obstruct the listening process. The same biases apply to the speaker’s physical appearance.

To avoid this obstruction, listeners should be aware of these biases and focus on the substance, rather than the style of delivery, or the speaker’s voice and appearance.

The solution: active listening. Active listening is a particular communication technique that requires the listener to provide feedback on what he or she hears to the speaker, by way of restating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words.

The goal of this repetition is to confirm what the listener has heard and to confirm the understanding of both parties. The ability to actively listen demonstrates sincerity, and that nothing is being assumed or taken for granted.

Active listening is most often used to improve personal relationships, reduce misunderstanding and conflicts, strengthen cooperation, and foster understanding.

And though the bad listener loves to internally multitask while someone else is talking, faking it won’t work. As Rogers writes, people are alert to the mere ‘pretence of interest’, resenting it as ‘empty and sterile’. To sincerely listen means to marshal a mixture of agency, compassion, attention and commitment.

This ‘demands practice’, Rogers said, and ‘may require changes in our own basic attitudes’.

Encouraging good listening helps employees work together better as a team, and promotes innovative thinking and more effective communication. Here are some of the basics of attentive listening: Make eye contact. Looking directly at the person who’s speaking is a clear way to indicate you’re paying attention to him or her.

Looking away, even if you’re still listening, will make it seem like you’re distracted or not interested; Make appropriate facial expressions. Nodding, tilting your head, smiling – all of these expressions show a response to what the speaker is saying, which indicates that you’re grasping the meaning and are interested in what he or she’s saying; Ask questions.

Critical listening involves asking questions to get all the information. When you ask the speaker a question, it also drives the conversation and shows that you’re interested in clarification and understanding the issues.

Don’t interrupt. Although it’s good to ask questions, try not to interrupt the speaker; Let the person complete his or her thoughts before responding or asking questions; Paraphrase.

When you restate, in your own words, what the speaker is saying, you prove that you’re listening carefully – after all, you wouldn’t be able to repeat anything if you weren’t paying attention.

Keeping these tips in mind will help us a long way become more effective listeners, which is more than half of what it takes to be a really good listener and a good communicator.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK

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