Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Art of Listening

There is a saying, “only a few people really listen; the rest a just waiting for their turn to speak.” On reflection, I must admit there are times when I fall into the latter category, having been a “professional talker”. However, my vocation challenges me to be as good a listener as I am a speaker. Or perhaps even a better listener.

The term “dialogue” has become much used in our country of late, in terms of both voices in a conversation being heard and understood. Often the challenge has been that both sides of the conversation are used to speaking but not listening. Sometimes it is because people associate different meanings to words and phrases. This can lead to further conflict which is the opposite of what dialogue aims to bring about. This challenge brings to mind a Cuban proverb I once read, “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

A possible way to break through the challenge of different meanings in conversaton, is called reflective listening. Reflective listening is a step further than active listening. Active listening is when the listener gives feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.

Reflective speaking involves two key steps: seeking to understand a speaker's idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. It attempts to "reconstruct what the speaker is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to the speaker".

Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than the more general methods of active listening. It arose from Carl Rogers' school of client-centered therapy in counselling theory. Dalmar Fisher, an Associate Professor at Boston College, developed a model for Reflective Listening that includes the following elements:

- Actively engaging in the conversation, by reducing or eliminating distractions of any kind to allow for paying full attention to the conversation at hand.

- Genuinely empathizing with the speaker’s point of view. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the speaker, just viewing things from his/her perspective. The listener encourages the person to speak freely, by being non judgmental and empathetic.

- Mirroring the mood of the speaker, reflecting the emotional state with words and nonverbal communication. This calls for the listener to quiet his mind and fully focus on the mood of the speaker. The mood will be apparent not just in the words used but in the tone of voice, in the posture and other nonverbal cues given by the speaker.The listener will look for congruence between words and mood.

- Summarizing what the speaker said, using the listener’s own words. This is different than paraphrasing, where words and phrases are moved around and replaced to mirror what the speaker said. The reflective listener recaps the message using his own words.

Reflective listening is the pathway for engaging others in relationship, building trust, and fostering motivation to change. Reflective listening appears deceptively easy, but it takes hard work and skill to do well. Sometimes the “skills” we use in working when trying to have dialogue or “deep sharing”do not exemplify reflective listening but instead serve as roadblocks to effective communication. Examples include misinterpreting what is said or assuming what a person needs.

It is vital to learn to think reflectively. This is a way of thinking that accompanies good reflective listening that includes interest in what the person has to say and respect for the person’s inner wisdom. Its key element is a hypothesis testing approach to listening. What you think the person means may not be what they really mean.

Listening breakdowns occur in any of three places:
• Speaker does not say what is meant
• Listener does not hear correctly
• Listener gives a different interpretation to what the words mean

Stephen Covey, author of the popular book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” took listening to a deeper level by discussing what he calls “Empathic Listening”.

"When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of "active" listening or "reflective" listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationships, and often insults those "listened" to in such a way. It is also essentially autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical. You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate.”

According to Covey, empathic listening, means listening with intent to understand. It is seeking first to understand, to really understand. It's an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.
“In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel."

Simply put, reflective listening  is the single most important verbal skill that you will ever learn in your whole entire life. Teachers and Parents use more than any other skill.

As a parent, I have come to realise that Reflective Listening important because it not only shows that feelings matter, or that it is possible to talk about uncomfortable or complicated feelings but also that we care about our children’s feelings.

Using reflective listening helps our children to understand that all feelings are acceptable, even though certain behaviour is not. It can defuse an uncomfortable situation, reduce a child’s urge to act out because the child feels heard, teach the child a vocabulary for articulating how they feel, and reduce whining, anger and frustration.

However, the challenge lies in being honest to the speaker and as a listener. This is not an exercise which merely needs one to go through the motions. Deep and sincere listening leads to honest sharing and profound changes taking place in relationships.

As the Word says, “Let those who have ears to hear listen.”

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”

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