We all do it. When someone is speaking to us, part of our attention is diverted to our agenda - what we may have been thinking about before, what we could be doing instead, and most often, how we can volley back with our cleverly crafted retort to the anticipated storyline.
It’s human nature to jump ahead of another speaker in our minds and prepare to reply. And unquestionably, some amount of this is needed to successfully dialogue back and forth. However, we often miss much content and intended meaning when we allow our minds to wander too far away from the present moment.
I was a newly-minted college grad working for a health insurer in Kendall Square, Cambridge when my boss called me into his office. It was time for my annual review, and I was ready to hear his positive feedback for all my hard work. As Joe began to share his impressions with me, I was already two steps ahead of him, readying to impress with my quick, intelligent comeback. So, when he suddenly stopped speaking and leaned back in his chair, I catapulted into my rift of cleverly articulated response. For the next uncomfortably protracted minutes, he did not speak. Hmm, now he had my attention. I wondered what he was thinking, and asked. He leaned forward with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Sheryl, do you think you hear me when I talk?”
In a swift gust, the air was sucked out of my sails and my heart sank. Hurt, defensive and embarrassed, I could no longer speak. Joe went on to explain how I was smart but spent too much time talking and not enough time really listening when he spoke. Ouch! No one had ever said something so blunt and unexpected to me at work. I spent the next few weeks wandering around in a fog, feeling unappreciated, betrayed and insulted, and the next many years learning the endless value of his question.
Flash forward to 2008 when I took my first coach training. There were many fascinating classes as part of our program, but the one that stuck to me like glue was called Reflective Listening. An entire class devoted to the art of listening to another. It was during these 12 weeks that I became immersed in the methods of being fully present to a person’s unfolding story. I learned to be an active listener - not someone preoccupied with preparing a comeback but actively paying undivided attention to the speaker.
Active listening is a slowly acquired skill set that can take years of practice and patience to master. Concentrating one’s attention on what is being said instead of passively hearing can be a game changer to compassionate communication. Active listening involves all the senses and conveys to the speaker, through eye contact, verbal, facial and postural cues, mirrored body language, cadence, pauses and short periods of silence, that attention is being shown. Here are a few ideas for an active listener to keep top of mind:
Being Present is Hard
Whether in a business meeting, writing an article, or speaking with a friend, our attention is often easily hijacked when our mind wanders. And in today’s fast-paced world of constant emails, texts, calls, and social media messages, staying focused can feel downright impossible.
Given all the demands on our time, it’s no surprise that we are not always present with the people in front of us. It takes time and effort to refocus after an interruption, and multitasking can have adverse effects on our productivity and cognitive capacity. However, the more we practice returning our wandering mind back to the present, the better we become at connecting with and truly listening to others.
To find common ground, communication involves the exchange of sometimes opposing viewpoints and opening our minds to another’s perspective. Cultivating the habit of listening with curiosity and attention improves connection and mutual understanding, and offers us valuable input to enrich the conversation and relationship.
So, the next time someone is speaking, notice: are you busy interrupting or considering your rebuttal? Or, are you staying open to another person’s perspective? The world around us provides ample distraction on which to blame our lack of presence. But, if we practice pressing the pause button in our minds and focus on the speaker’s words and intentions, we just might hear that insightful bit we’d otherwise have missed.
And, to Joe twenty years later - thanks for that candid moment of honesty. Your willingness to hold up a mirror has turned into an unexpected, lifelong gift that still illuminates my path.
Active listening is the opportunity in any relationship. Take a moment to lean in and invest your full attention.
Reflective or Active Listening is an essential skill of artful and effective communication. Like any new skill, it requires practice to develop into a natural component of how we relate to others. Although many of us would say that we listen to others, the quality of that listening allows or disallows the person who is speaking to be heard or not. Hearing is a sensory ability – listening is a developed skill.
As you learn to listen more deeply, apart from your own agenda, you will find that the capacity for true understanding expands significantly. Active listening promotes a spirit of partnership, trust and authenticity that becomes the foundation of real growth potential. It is the pathway for engaging others in relationship and fostering motivation to change.
How often have we engaged in conversation, shared some deeply personal experience for example, only to feel unheard? Perhaps the listener is distracted or shifts focus onto himself by relating a similar story. He might interrupt or cut you off with a comment that shows he is not really listening to what you have said. When this occurs, what happens to our willingness to risk sharing our private truth with another? Chances are that opportunity is lost, falling “on deaf ears”, and the speaker becomes less inclined to attempt to communicate those feelings again.
In reflective listening, the listener puts his full attention on the words of the speaker. He does not interrupt at the first opening, but allows the speaker space to share fully. When the speaker pauses, the listener resists the temptation to fill the pause with commentary, perhaps honoring a moment of silence. Silence gives permission for acceptance, insight, softening, trust. Then, the listener might ask “Is there anything else?” to give the speaker permission to consider saying more. When the listener is sure the speaker is finished, summing up what the speaker said and repeating it back to the speaker is the fundamental ingredient in reflective listening. Paraphrasing, re-framing or clarifying distinctions not only demonstrates to the speaker that you've been paying close attention, but also allows the speaker to hear for himself what he has just said. This piece of listening is so valuable - it validates the speaker's feelings and helps them to sort out what they have just said and also helps the listener to confirm what they believe the speaker is attempting to convey. The listener could say something like “It sounds like you're saying ________.” or “What I hear you saying is_______. Is that right?”
Reflective listening keeps the focus on the speaker. Of course, it is important for both or all people in a discussion to feel heard, so taking turns with roles of speaker and listener makes sense. However, if the speaker has proposed the topic and has a greater need to speak, the listener can agree to stay in that role for the speaker's benefit. The main idea is to clearly demonstrate caring and concern for the speaker's agenda. All too often, messages are not adequately conveyed, not for lack of trying but for lack of skillful listening. Reflective listening requires empathy, focused attention and practice, challenging for even the very best communicators in a fast-paced culture. However, setting the intention to listen well at the outset of dialogue can allow the listener to give the gift of being heard.
Take a moment to think about the various relationships you each have that could benefit from active listening? Relationships between parents and children, siblings, coworkers, friends, romantic partners, neighbors, and community leaders could all be dramatically improved with better listening.
So, the next time someone is speaking, take the time to sit down, look them in the eye and set your own agenda aside. It is truly one of the best gifts you can give to the people in your life.
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.