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Energize Your Communication — Become a Genuine Listener

Written by John W Travis MD, MPH   
Monday, 01 September 2008 00:00
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Since most of us spend more than half of our time in communication as a listener, we should be experts at it by now.

If you are, though, you are the rare exception. Most people listen passively, planning what they are going to say next, or they listen partially, jumping on the first few words they hear and extrapolating the rest. It is no wonder that communication often lacks energy and leaves people feeling drained, bored, joyless, angry, depressed, or helpless. In many conversations there is little actual communication. Poor listening is usually at the root of the problem.

Dynamic listening is more than simply hearing. And it is easy to confuse the two. Think about this distinction in the realm of music. You probably hear music of some sort almost every day—as background to a TV show or in the supermarket. Even if you are not consciously aware of hearing it, this music creates a mood. Rarely will you attend to the lyrics or dance to the rhythm of this kind of music. Now contrast this with your behavior at a concert, a symphony, or a dance. In these circumstances, your body is turned in the direction of the band or orchestra. You may experience an emotional rush as you allow the music in. You may involve your body with it, starting to sway or hum along, or to clap in time. When the music ends, you applaud or stand up and shout. Now you are listening dynamically.

Imagine giving that kind of attention to another human being— involving yourself actively in what they are saying. That’s what it means to listen rather than merely to hear. Active listening forms the basis of strong interpersonal relationships. It encourages interaction with another, rather than the assumption of a passive role, like people usually take with doctors, teachers, and other experts. Active listening allows you to step inside the other person’s shoes and see, hear, and feel the world from their perspective. With that advantage, miracles can happen between you and others.

Good listeners are made, not born. They are made by their willingness to observe the volumes that are spoken between the lines in ordinary conversation. Good listeners, for instance, “hear” a clenched fist or a look in the eye as much as they hear someone’s words. Good listeners are patient and nonjudgmental. They acknowledge other people’s views without immediately trying to correct them or help them. They assume that the speaker is the expert about themselves, and become a witness to the speaker’s process of self-discovery. Good listeners aren’t satisfied with partial data and don’t presume to know what another person means. Good listeners ask questions to clarify meaning and paraphrase what they heard to be sure they understood what was said. Good listeners are an active presence. They look at you, smile, nod their head, or give other appropriate forms of nonverbal feedback. (Too much of this, however, can be a sign of trying to please without really listening.) A good listener can be a very good friend.