Listening to understand

To test out how difficult it is to engage in an act of listening, try sitting with someone and letting that individual talk for five minutes, without any interruption on any topic of his or her interest. Chances are, you will not even go beyond the one-minute mark without being tempted to interrupt, ask for clarification, suggest your own opinion, and in some instance, change the topic altogether because of disinterest.

I try demonstrating this to my students taking education and/or psychology to expose the challenges and importance of the art of listening to enhance human relationship. After doing the activity, students often admit that it is a difficult feat. However, they also add that once they start to genuinely listen to the other person, a greater sense of connectedness and appreciation is experienced, by both speaker and listener.

Why is it difficult?

It is easier to speak than to listen because from the time we were infants, we felt the pressure to use a “spoken” language to indicate normal development. Parents become anxious when their infants take too long to utter the first word. In retrospect, you would realize that major portions of your childhood were spent in trying to acquire more words to string them together to make phrases and sentences.

Although listening played a significant role in the development of our spoken language skill(s), it was directly aimed at acquiring the language. We didn’t listen so that we could understand someone else’s message(s). We listened solely because we wanted to imitate and use the words or phrases or sentences in our own speech. Hence, while we got a lot of training in correctly speaking a language, we were not necessarily taught how to listen with the intention to understand a speaker’s message(s).

Importance of listening

Inability to listen effectively causes individuals, groups, and institutions great losses. Subsequently, ineffective listening leads to relationship break down – between parents and their children, teachers and their students, administrators and their teachers. When people don’t listen to each other, their responses seem insensitive to the needs and aspiration of others. This is misunderstood for selfishness, leading to one or both parties feeling offended and becoming defensive. Naturally, a fight or flight response pattern is triggered in this situation and no decent conversation can transpire thereafter.

In the classroom setting, teachers who listen to students not only assure them of their attention, but also allow themselves opportunities to truly understand what students are experiencing. School administrators who listen to their teachers motivate the staff to be initiative, creative, and committed. In both cases, the ones who are listened to feel appreciated, valued, and become willing to perform better.

Listening skills

Teachers and school administrators who seek to forge a positive relationship with their constituencies must learn to listen. They should listen to understand, and not just to respond to what is being told. Listening to understand requires that teachers, first and foremost, do more listening than talking. Secondly, they need to decode the feelings contained in what is said, along with deciphering facts or ideas. Thirdly, a good listener would do his best to view the contents of the messages from a speaker’s frame of reference. For this to happen successfully, one must listen to the whole story without disrupting the speaker. Fourthly, listening to understand entails restating and clarifying what the other has said. This is not the same as asking questions or telling what the listener feels, believes, or wants. Last but not the least, a good listener responds to the speaker with acceptance and empathy, not with indifference, cold objectivity, or fake concern.

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