Power Listening

POSTED: Aug. 10, 2016

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” - Robert McCloskey

Communication is successful when all parties share the same meaning. Shared meaning happens when everyone pictures the information as similarly as possible. Unfortunately, many conversations can be characterized by the quote above. Certainly miscommunication can be caused by talkers who are insufficiently descriptive; the pictures they are trying to convey look more like murky water than a clear vision of meaning. But, as is often the case, the listener has failed to exert the amount of effort that is required to interpret meaning correctly.

Many people view listening as a passive activity: “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…” The implication is that the talker has full responsibility to ensure that meaning is shared. It is true that people ask themselves “What’s in it for me?” before focusing their attention. Talkers do need to provide motivation for the listener to choose to hear the message. But notice: listeners choose the focus of their attention. Listening is an active choice, requiring considerable effort. Unfortunately our effort is often misguided. For example, have you ever sat in silence at a family dinner nodding your head dutifully while an in-law droned on about the origins of silverware? You probably told yourself you were being a good listener for the sake of family harmony. But, your silence symbolically communicated that you were fascinated by a long, drawn-out explanation of the most appropriate number of tines on a fork! The truth is you were fascinated by how someone could talk incessantly and devour turkey at the same time. Martyrs do not make good listeners.

Good listening skills give us power in conversations. Unfortunately, people often view this power as an all-or-nothing concept. Either we sit silently biting our tongues or we interrupt, debate and dominate. Those are the only choices we believe are available. Effective listening skills give us the power to avoid these extremes. Listening skills give us the power to calm an emotionally-charged conversation, keep the conversation on topic and ensure that everyone’s opinion is considered even if everyone does not agree with that opinion.

The first step to becoming a powerful listener is to recognize and overcome ineffective listening habits. How many of the following statements represent your listening habits?

  • When I know someone well, I assume I know what they will say before they say it.
  • When someone proposes an action, I immediately start planning what I will do.
  • When I disagree with the point being made, I immediately form a rebuttal and start to debate.
  • I have no patience for people who lead up to their point instead of giving the “bottom line” first.
  • I decide whether or not a topic is relevant to me within the first few seconds of the conversation.
  • I often focus on the example itself and miss the point that the example is illustrating.
  • I feel that I haven’t really participated in a conversation unless I have added my comments about what others have said.
  • It is difficult for me to listen to someone who is less knowledgeable than I am.
  • I completely tune out people whom I don’t trust.
  • I am sometimes so focused on what the other person thinks of me that I don’t hear what they’re saying.

Each of these statements represents a common problem in focusing while listening. The trick is to be aware that the lack of focus is occurring at the moment it is happening. Since most of our communication behaviors are unconscious habits, this realization can be difficult.

A lack of focus while listening most often results in interrupting others. This happens because as we are listening to someone talk, we are also talking to ourselves about what we’re hearing. Try to think without using words. Can you do it for any length of time? The words we use to think could be louder than anything else that is vying for our attention—like the other person’s comments. This is especially true if we are experiencing strong emotions during the interaction. The questions we ask ourselves when we are feeling defensive, for example, can be very distracting:

  • Is that true?
  • Do I agree?
  • Why is she saying that to me?
  • What makes him think it’s OK to use that word choice around me?
  • Am I hearing the whole story?

The best way to prevent these internal conversations from drowning out the external conversation is to remember that the two steps of listening must be accomplished in order:

  1. Understand the message from the talker’s point of view, then
  2. Evaluate the message for its relevance, veracity and persuasiveness.

Understanding the message from the talker’s point of view does not mean that I should agree with or say yes to everything I hear. That is why there is a second level of listening that allows us to ask critical decision-making questions about the information. Understanding the message from the talker’s point of view means that I am able to describe in my own words the essence of the talker’s main point. This paraphrasing is often referred to as reflective listening skills. We are acting as a “mirror” for the talker, reflecting back the message as we understand it.

 Reflective listening is very powerful. Consider the following examples:

  1. You are being given confusing instructions and paraphrase what you are hearing. The talker eventually becomes more concise.
  2. Someone is very upset and, even though it sounds like a personal attack against you, you calmly paraphrase their frustration and ask in what way you can assist in resolving the situation.
  3. A sarcastic comment has been made. You laugh about the joke but then paraphrase the serious point being made within that joke and redirect the conversation to uncover the hidden meaning of the comment.

In all three scenarios you have taken control of a difficult situation and redirected the focus of the conversation to a much more productive and rational interaction. That is the power of good listening skills.

Learning to paraphrase first after all of these years of defending ourselves first and then straightening out the misunderstanding later, is not an easy task. In fact I consider it to be one of the most difficult communication skills I teach. In elementary school we learn to question what we hear in order to be good consumers of information and avoid believing empty promises and exaggerated claims. Of course this is important to learn, especially in today’s society. We do not want our children believing everything they see in the media or read on the Internet. Unfortunately that means we have learned how to accomplish Step #2 in listening (evaluate the message) before we learn how to paraphrase and accomplish Step #1 (understand). Learning to paraphrase as adults feels artificial and awkward. It is also difficult to change a long-held habit. But with practice, the skill can be used and our personal power and influence can be enhanced.

 Some important guidelines to consider when paraphrasing are:

  • Do not become a “parrot” who restates everything the talker says. Paraphrase means capturing the essence of the main point. Besides, it would be ridiculous if someone tells you “You’re the dumbest person I’ve ever met” for you to repeat, “So what you’re telling me is I’m the dumbest person you’ve ever met.” Instead you would say: “Obviously I’m not understanding what you’re saying. This is what I thought I heard you say…”
  • When you are unable to determine the main point, acknowledge the emotion: “This is obviously frustrating so let’s take it one step at a time to figure out how to fix this.” Do not, however, say “I know how you feel” even if you have experienced a similar upset. This is their moment to experience strong emotion, not yours.
  • Keep the paraphrase neutral. Remember this is your first response to what you are hearing. Use the power of paraphrase to keep the conversation calm. Avoid putting evaluation in the paraphrase, “You shouldn’t be so worried about this.”
  • Delay responding until you really do understand. Listen for the moral to the story. Or listen for the period at the end of the sentence before jumping in.
  • Match your paraphrase style to the talker’s style. If they are detail-oriented, paraphrase with detail. If they are “bottom line-oriented,” paraphrase succinctly.

With trial and error practice, you will begin to see the advantage of slowing down conversations to truly understand everyone’s meaning. Think of how much time is wasted in conversations where everyone is so busy stating their own case that no one realizes they are essentially agreeing with one another. Think of how powerful a person is who can keep a conversation issue focused and who does not react defensively. Being the listener in an interaction is not the passive, helpless position many believe it to be. Good listening skills influence the success of the conversation. That is powerful.

Learn more today about Kent State’s “Effective Listening Skills” program.