Listening and Being Listened to

@myteri (332)
December 19, 2006 11:14am CST
If you were asked to explain to someone what it meant to be a good communicator, what would you say? Most people usually say something like: ‘it’s someone who talks well, who can give a good speech or is a smooth talker at parties’. No doubt, the ability to speak well can be very important in life, but it’s a common mistake to believe being a good speaker is the same as being a good communicator. I’ve worked with lots of people including many senior managers and leaders. Some of these guys thought they were great communicators with the people around them, but in reality, they didn’t have a clue about effective communication. Sure, they were smooth talkers, fast talkers, even well structured talkers, but as communicators - totally hopeless. Being a good communicator is much more than being a good talker. It also requires excellent listening skills. And for most people, it takes a lot more understanding, practice and effort to be an effective listener than to be a great talker. Communication is about swapping information and ideas between people. The key word is ‘swapping’ because it means that it’s a two-way activity. The information or ideas are sent by messages, using language as the means to do it, and received by one or more people who then interpret the message. The trick here is that the received message may or may not have the same meaning as the message the sender intended. And most importantly, it’s how the message is interpreted that determines the way the listener responds. You’ve probably come across this already at some time in your various relationships; for example, when you’ve said something to a friend or a family member; they’ve taken what you said the wrong way, and you end up being surprised and perhaps angry or hurt by their reaction. If you want to be a good communicator, you need to understand why this happens. Some of the reasons why the message received could be different from the message sent are: Starting with the obvious one, both the sender and receiver have to have the same level of understanding of the language being used. You can just imagine how successful a German tourist in China would be asking for street directions in German from a Chinese newspaper boy who only spoke his native language. It might be funny to watch, but it would very quickly become frustrating for both the sender and receiver of the message. Even within the English-speaking world, there’s no guarantee that just because we all supposedly speak the same language that there will be no communication failures. I recall some years ago, I was in a town in one of the southern states of the USA and I wanted to hire a car for a few days. I went into the local Macdonald’s store and asked a young guy behind the counter where I could get a hire car. He thought for a few moments, and then gave me very clear directions to a hire car place a few blocks away. I thanked him and set off, following his directions to the letter. When I arrived at the ‘hire car’ office, I realised straight away that the young man had misinterpreted my communication. The place I was at had red and white barber’s poles out the front, and inside, sure enough, there were customers sitting on chairs receiving haircuts. It was easy to see in hindsight that ‘hire car’ in an Australian accent sounded like ‘haircut’ in the south of the USA. We all have our own baggage from the past, and this determines our set of values, beliefs and attitudes that shape how we think and act. All of this affects how we communicate – in sending and receiving messages. If both the sender and receiver are very similar in these areas, there’s a good chance of effective communication, but the wider the differences in outlook, the greater the risk of communication going astray through mental blockages or distortions of the sent message. Although language is the means of communication between people, it doesn’t have to be just verbal language. Body language is also a critical part in the art of communication. Things like maintaining eye contact while talking, hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture and appearance, and the tone and level of voice all have a great impact on communication. A good example of this is the hapless Mr Bean. In many of his TV stories, he speaks very little but you still know what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling because he communicates so effectively (and funnily) through his body language. There’s been a lot of research done on the subject of non-verbal communication, and it has been found over ninety percent of the first impression you make with people comes from body language and the tone and level of your voice; something to keep in mind whether you’re fronting up for a job interview or having a discussion with someone important to you. Now there are several ways to improve your listening skills: If you’re in a place with a lot of distractions, try to get rid of as many of them as possible, or try to ignore them, or better still, suggest going somewhere else for the discussion if this is practicable. Be aware that you may have different attitudes and beliefs to the person talking and try and keep an open mind to another point of view. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with the point being made, just understand it. Be aware of your body language while someone is talking to you. This provides powerful and immediate feedback of what you’re thinking and how you are likely to respond. If you look bored and start fidgeting, this tells the other person that you’re not really interested and not listening. A sarcastic facial expression can clearly show your disagreement and that you’re jumping to conclusions before the other person has finished talking. Try and focus on the words spoken and the meaning behind the words, nod occasionally to indicate that you’re following what’s being said, maintain eye contact and look attentive and interested in the other person. Other good listening techniques are: Never interrupt the person speaking. Keep your emotions under control. Show respect for the other person’s opinions whether you agree with them or not. Never bluntly say ‘you’re wrong’. Enjoy the opportunity to listen to other people express their views. Ask questions to clarify points you’re unsure of, and When the speaker is finished, briefly summarise what you think you heard. This not only shows genuine interest, but also gives the speaker the opportunity to correct anything wrongly communicated. Another major communication problem occurs when there is a mental blockage between the sender and receiver of the message. The type blockage can range anywhere from a paper filter that slightly distorts or garbles the message to a double brick wall that prevents the receiver from understanding anything at all. So what can you do to beat these blockages and ensure your message gets through correctly or that you receive the message that was intended? Here are a few tips: For the Speaker: Don’t use overly complicated words when short, simple ones will do. Don’t use more words than you need to get your message across and keep your sentences short. Be alert to the body language of the listener. This can provide you with immediate feedback with signs of boredom, hostility or confusion, any of which points to a communication blockage. Don’t speak too quickly, and deliberately pause after each main point you make to let the listener absorb it. Don’t speak in a low monotone voice. You’ll risk putting yourself to sleep as well as the listener. Don’t shout, use a threatening tone, preach or talk down to the listener. These are all big turn-offs; and Try to understand your listener’s point of view, and accept that it mightn’t be the same as yours. For the Listener: Take note of the tips for effective listening discussed earlier. Try not to judge the speaker or their statements too quickly. Don’t start rehearsing what you will say in response while the speaker is still talking. Remain determined to fully understand the true meaning of the speaker’s message whether you agree with it or not and whether it upsets you or not; and When you do respond, remember you are now the speaker and you should follow the same pointers listed above for effective speaking. If you’re finding it difficult right now to get what you want from a relationship maybe your ability to communicate is the right place to start looking for an answer. If you decide this is a problem in any of your relationships, you can choose to do something about it. Seize the opportunity to go out and practise the art of good communication; you’ll amaze yourself what a huge difference it can make in your life. Resource BoxRay Gibson is a freelance writer with a special interest in personal development. He is the author of 'Working the Dream', a practical guide written specially for teenagers and young adults to help them achieve their dreams. For further information go to:
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