Being a good listener is one of the skills most frequently cited as essential to good communication. And the majority of people want to be good listeners.
On the surface, it seems like an easy thing to do. After all, it's just about shutting up, paying attention to the other person and keeping an open mind.
If only it were that easy! Here are some of the glib statements people make about listening – and why they need to be challenged.
1. "Keep an open mind"
Human beings are preprogrammed to be judgemental. We judge if food is poisonous or safe to eat, if the car is coming toward us so fast it will run us down if we cross the road, if the person speaking to us is to be trusted, if the footsteps coming behind us indicate a potential attacker. Being judgemental has kept us – and our ancestors – alive and kicking. It's not that easy to turn off this life-saving attribute just because we're listening to someone, so avoid this trite directive.
2. "Don't interrupt"
This is so misleading. There are plenty of people who avoid interrupting others and yet they are anything but good listeners! Avoiding interrupting while working out our argument against what the speaker is saying, for example, is not good. Avoiding interrupting while thinking about your own response to the issue makes you deaf to the what the other person is saying, and not interrupting because you don't give a damn anyway is not good listening!
On the other hand, some great listeners interrupt regularly – they ask questions to deepen their understanding, they make statements to show their interest and involvement, they intervene with short comments to affirm their agreement with the speaker. They may interrupt lots!
Of course, the person who interrupts just to talk about themselves, or lead the conversation in an entirely different direction or argue their case instead, is not listening well. Just don't assume the non-interrupter is!
3. "Maintain eye contact"
While it is certainly true that most speakers find it difficult to continue talking if the listener breaks off eye contact, breaking eye contact doesn't mean that the listener isn't listening. Some listeners look away as they reflect on what the person is saying. Some people even find it helps them to listen if they are doodling while doing so, while others concentrate more fully when they close their eyes. Yes, these can also be signs that the listener has stopped paying attention – but it isn't always the case.
4. "Avoid becoming defensive"
Good listeners are supposed to soak up others' views as if they are neutral bystanders. But human beings are emotional creatures – we feel things. When we are listening to another view that challenges our own, our natural defences start to rise. The message we are getting is 'you are wrong' or 'you don't matter'.
We are naturally driven to seek out views that confirm our own, and to fight against those that challenge them. We gravitate towards friends who are like-minded; we buy books, newspapers and magazines that affirm our views and beliefs. This tells us we are okay people and helps us feel safer in a world full of uncertainty. So, while it may be that avoiding defensiveness will help us be a better listener, it simply isn't natural to do so.
5. "Ask questions"
Asking questions is seen as a way to demonstrate our excellent listening as we pick up on what someone has said and probe more deeply into it. And sometimes questions can indeed do just that – they may demonstrate that we are listening well.
However, that's only when we ask genuine questions – and much of the time those apparent good listeners' questions are anything but. A genuine question is one where the questioner truly wants to hear the other person's views and has no other motive behind the question.
The motive behind many questions is far less pure however. Questions can be incredibly judgemental – "Don't you think you'd have been better to...?" / "Why did you do that?" (asked in a tone that implies "you idiot") / "Didn't you think that might happen?" are examples of questions where the listener's motives are about proving they are right and the other person is wrong, rather than deepening understanding.
Listening is an essential skill for good communicators. But because this view is so commonly held, we have developed beliefs and assumptions about listening that are at best half-truths; assumptions that need to be questioned rather than followed by rote.
What are your experiences? Do you think there are universal qualities that make someone a good listener? And what are some of the other 'one-size-fits-all' statements about listening that need to be challenged? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @CommsMasters.
Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom / FreeDigitalPhotos.net