The death of George Floyd quite rightly sparked outrage throughout the world, while also revealing a significant knowledge gap for large swathes of us when it came to racial injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement offered a chance for education, and in the process a need for us to listen (this piece by speaker Light Watkins is a good start).
Listening is something the vast majority of us take for granted. It’s what we do automatically every second of the day, taking in the sounds around us, filtering and processing the world we live in and communicating with others.
Those who choose to see listening as a skill to be developed can gain a definite edge in their understanding of people and situations. In the work environment, those who can listen well will generally make fewer mistakes and upset less people. In relationships and family life being able to listen well will help you avoid quite a few arguments along the way. And in some cases, when the opportunity presents itself, listening can help bring about social change.
So what exactly is good listening, and how can it be developed? Here is a key distinction to assist you in gaining the benefits of great listening.
What Is Active Listening?
In her book The Coaching Manual, leadership coach and management consultant Julie Starr differentiates between:
- Cosmetic Listening: “If it looks like I’m listening I’m not really. I’m kind of someplace else.”
- Conversational Listening: “I’m engaged in the conversation, listening, talking, thinking, talking, thinking etc.”
- Active Listening: “I’m very focused on what you’re saying, my inner chatter is quiet, I’m paying full attention, making you feel listened to.”
Most of us spend the vast majority of our time in the first two of these. Our minds are often elsewhere, looking at our phones or doing something else while listening. If not, we are spending most of the time waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can speak, and working out what we want to say next instead of fully listening.
Both cosmetic and conversational listening require little effort on our part and are at least as much about ourselves as the person speaking. By being relatively selfish and passive in this way, we miss huge opportunities to understand what the speaker is really communicating.
Whether through not noticing their body language or tone, nor picking up the subtleties hidden in what they aren’t saying as much as what they are, we miss the chance to gain everything possible from the conversation.
Active listening, as the name suggests, is far more intentional. We put our distractions aside, begin to quiet our own opinions and internal commentary and give our full attention to the person we are listening to.
You will know you are listening actively when:
- You are only speaking 20 percent of the time,
- Your intention is to stay focused on what the other person is saying in order to fully understand them,
- Your inner voice is relatively quiet. You are not judging what the speaker is saying, thinking of a response or a solution to their problem.
- You are asking clarifying questions and summarising what the person has told you to check you have understood and to make them feel listened to.
As you listen actively, the person speaking will feel space opening up in which to go deeper into feelings, thoughts and details. They gain great benefit from this as they can tell that, for all the lack of time we experience in such a hectic world, you have chosen to dedicate a portion of yours exclusively to them. That is an incredibly rare gift, and one which will make the other feel valued and understood. Connections with friends, work colleagues and family members will all be nourished by this sentiment.
As the listener, you benefit greatly through gaining a better understanding of who the speaker is, what they want and what their beliefs are. This will enable you to know how to build a better relationship with them, how they like to be communicated with and what to do and not to do to create trust and rapport.
Whether at work, with your partner, friends or children, these benefits will inevitably enrich your relationships and make you a more successful and influential communicator.
At Form, we believe life is all about creating win-win situations in which everyone benefits. Take the opportunity to create one of these situations next time you listen.