Listening involves more than just hearing the words when another person is speaking. Listening has been described as an art form that involves comprehension, observation, recognition, and thinking. In fact, listening is so important, it has been called one of our most important communication skills.
When it comes to listening, it seems that it is the communication skill we use most and which we usually do worst. To improve your communication skills requires understanding what listening really involves.
Most people would assume that speaking is the most important aspect of communication. After all, without telling other people our needs, expectations, and desires, they will never get to know these.
Researchers from the University of Missouri found that, on average, we spend 70% to 80% of our waking hours engaged in some form of communication. From this time, around 45% of that time is listening and only 30% is spent talking. The rest of the time is made up of reading and writing.
The same research found that after listening to a presentation for 10 minutes, we only hear, understand, and retain half of what was said. After 48 hours, that figure drops another half. So, that means many of us only listen with 25% efficiency.
To improve your listening and communication skills, it is important to understand what it means to really listen.
When you hear words that someone else is speaking, you need to comprehend what they are trying to say. This is extremely important if you are listening to a speaker who doesn’t convey their message well. You also have to listen well to comprehend ideas that are difficult to grasp.
One of the easiest ways to improve listening comprehension is to ask questions. Even simply asking the person to repeat what they just said is enough. Or you could say, that you didn’t quite catch what they were saying and ask them to explain it again.
If you are attending a seminar or conference, taking notes and writing down questions on unfamiliar terms or ideas can help you do some further research when the event has finished.
Being a good listener also requires recognizing subtle messages that the speaker is giving. For example, in an interview, you can get a glean much from what that person speaks about most. Do they talk about their family? Are they critical of previous employers? Do they ask questions?
Active listening also means taking note of a person’s body language. There is a lot you can tell by being aware of the tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture. For example, a good listener may try talking in a more calm, relaxing manner if they sense the other person is tense.
Or, if the person speaking suddenly raises their tone, folds their arms, or becomes more emotional, it could be signs that they are being defensive. This may require a change of tactic in how you speak with them.
A good listener always tries to prevent their mind from wandering, even if they are not interested in what they are hearing. Consciously thinking along with what is being said can help you know when you should speak up or when restraint is better.
Consciously listening also involves not constantly thinking ahead to what you want to say next. If you are constantly thinking about your reply or rebuttal, it can cause you to switch off from the speaker. It could mean that your reply isn’t effective because you haven’t heard everything that was said.
Improving your listening and communication skills also requires thinking about the wider picture. For example, after hearing certain information, a quick reply off the top of your head may be the worst thing you could do. What you say may be affected by emotions which could escalate tension in a delicate situation.
It is also important to know when to interrupt and when to keep quiet. Generally, interrupting someone while they are speaking makes them feel invalidated. Allowing a person to continue speaking helps them feel at ease and they may actually reveal more information.
Of course, in some situations, interrupting a long-winded speaker or if time is short may require interrupting them.
It is clear that listening involves more than just using our ears to hear words. Listening involves using all of our senses to understand and comprehend what is really being said.