I Thought I Was Listening

After reading my December Blog, Taking Time, my sister, Anne Collier called to tell me how much she appreciated the reminder to be relationship-based, as opposed to task-based, even at work. As a journalist, youth advocate and director of The Net Safety Collaborative, piloting iCanHelpline.org, Anne does a great deal of listening and learning with her clients. She suggested I write this blog about a key ingredient to building effective relationships: Listening.

At one time, I thought listening meant hearing what a person had to say and then sharing a related experience or offering a solution. Then I was trained in Active Listening. In the first exercise of that training, over 25 years ago, I interrupted my partner twice to get clarification and then launched into my own related story. In our evaluation of each other’s skill level, my partner wrote, “I don’t think she heard a word I said.”

Active Listening Defined

Needless to say, I was brought up short and ready to learn how to do better by my partner. I learned that by definition active listening is paraphrasing the feeling or content of what was just said. In each case, whether I interrupt, relate my own story, or offer a solution, I am putting the focus back on me. To be a good listener, I have to keep the conversation focused on the speaker. I’ve since figured out that when I keep listening, I’ll eventually get clarification. And, if I use “I” statements, I’ve once again taken back the spotlight. So now I say something like, “That must have been hard for you,” or “That’s exciting, what happened next?!”

Easy Steps We Can Take to Really Listen

Because communication fails when people don’t feel heard:

  • Use eye contact
  • Acknowledge by nodding and saying Mm-hmm or Okay
  • Listen for the message, both the content and feeling
  • Let the person finish talking
  • Paraphrase the content and feeling
  • Keep listening until there is a sign that the speaker is ready to listen to you. Typically, you’re asked, “What do you think?” or “Am I right?”

Don’t:

  • Pass judgement aloud on what you hear
  • Interrupt
  • Respond with solutions
  • Look around mentally or physically

Burley-Allen (1995), in her book, Listening: the Forgotten Skill, explains that effective listening doesn’t indicate agreement. It indicates respect. In my work in reconciliation, it’s this respect that allows me to work with and honor people of varied backgrounds. Whether I’m helping business leaders develop robust corporate culture or co-facilitating a community conversation, the practice of active listening, affirming another’s experience, is one of the key elements that allows us all to feel like we belong.

Thanks to Anne for sharing the blog idea. -AN