Listening is hard work. I know, I’m a professional listener, and I work diligently to make sure I’ve not only heard what a person said, but more importantly, what he or she means. That’s why it’s important to learn a few steps to effective listening.
When most people are in a conversation with someone, they’re not really listening. They are either distracted by something else (television, internet, phone, children, driving, or even their own thoughts), or they are thinking ahead to their rebuttal, their point of view, or what they need to say.
Hearing is not the same thing as truly listening. I might hear the words you say, but not listen to what you really mean or even value what you say. Once, when a couple was vehemently arguing in my office with one another, she turned to me exasperated and said, “See. He doesn’t listen.”
He shot back, “I heard her, I just don’t think it’s that’s important.”
That sentence told me a whole lot about their relationship and why they were seeing me for marriage counseling.
If we are going to have successful, loving relationships, we must learn some essential skills; I want to give you five steps to effective listening that will help you become a better listener.
- Pay Attention. The most respectful thing you can do is give someone your undivided attention. James tells us that we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). One way to show that we’re listening is through our body language. Face the person and look in his or her eyes. Turn off the television or other distractions. By doing so, you are communicating, “What you’re feeling or thinking is important to me and I want to try to see things from your perspective.”
- Don’t interrupt. This is very difficult to do, especially when you don’t like hearing what the person may have to say or you strongly disagree. But give the person time to express themself and listen before giving your point of view. People long to be valued and heard, and when you listen fully, you communicate to her that how she feels or thinks is important to you–important enough for you to listen carefully. Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”
- Listen between the lines. Hearing is different than listening. I can hear the words without really understanding their meaning or caring about what the person is saying. Don’t get hung up on rabbit trails. For example, if your spouse says something like, “You never listen to me.” Don’t get distracted by arguing whether or not that’s true by responding “What do you mean I NEVER listen to you?” When we do that, we’re missing the message. What she was really saying is “Most of the time I feel unheard or undervalued by you.” Listen for the deeper meaning, not just the words. Words are an imperfect medium to convey what we truly feel. We might not always choose the correct words the first time around, but if you’re listening carefully, you can usually pick up on what the person means.
- Summarize back to the person what you think you heard. This helps to facilitate communication in two ways. First, if you’ve misunderstood what was said, it readily becomes apparent and can be corrected. Second, when you have correctly understood the other person’s feelings or what he wanted and communicated them back to him, he feels heard and understood, even if you disagree or can’t accommodate what he wants.
- Ask questions when confused. There are times when someone’s words don’t match their body language or voice tone. When that happens, instead of jumping to conclusions and making an accusation, ask questions. For example, someone may say “I’m not angry,” but their tone and body language convey otherwise. Instead of saying, “Yes you are, you’re yelling at me,” say, “I’m confused. You say you’re not angry but you’re yelling at me and you’re pointing your finger.” Then stop and listen to their response. They may either adjust their body language to match their words, or realize that they indeed are angry. Either way, you’ve been able to clarify and communicate more effectively.