Listen Up!

listen-upWhen Maria inquired about a shelf-stocking job at a local discount store, the manager looked surprised. Maria, who has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair. “I made it very clear that my chair wouldn’t be a problem, and that I could work effectively,” she remembers.

Although Maria scheduled an interview, someone contacted her beforehand to say the position had been filled. Maria believes her disability cost her the job, because the manager wasn’t listening to what she was saying.

It doesn’t take a disability to feel frustrated when what we say isn’t understood or believed. Hearing is just the first part of listening. “Listening effectively is hearing and understanding what a speaker is saying and how it applies to you, and then remembering it for future use,” says Carol Rosenthal, assistant director of the Academic Resource Center at Utah State University. But active listening takes practice.

When you know how to listen, you are able to show support for others and help avoid misunderstandings. You also avoid a situation in which you wrongly assume what a person means and feels. Being a good listener is essential to getting along with others.

Here’s how you can tune up your listening skills.

The Eyes Have It

Speakers want it, and listeners benefit from it. The “it” is eye contact. Your eyes pick up on signals that show what the speaker is really saying.

Looking into the speaker’s eyes and tilting your face toward the speaker show you’re paying attention. Looking out the window or elsewhere in the room doesn’t.

Encouraging Words

Good listeners encourage speakers to finish their thoughts. If the store manager had asked Maria more about her abilities instead of assuming the negative, Maria just might have been hired. Encouraging a speaker provides the chance to get the full story.

Reactions like “I see” and “Oh, really?” get the job done. As the speaker continues, the listener can try to figure out what he or she is really saying.

Non-verbal reactions, such as smiling, frowning, or laughing, also convey listening. Don’t be afraid to look puzzled if you don’t understand–a confused look can clue in the speaker that he or she needs to clarify what is being said.

Rosenthal adds that showing no energy at all is a negative. It sends the message that you’re bored.

Focus on What’s Being Said

“I can’t believe I flunked the test,” Bill says as he and his friend Jack walk home from school. “My parents aren’t going to let me go to the game now. Do you think I should …”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Jack says, “I need to double check what time we’re supposed to leave.”

It’s often tough to concentrate on what someone is saying because our focus is on what we want to say next, says Marion Couvillion, who teaches communications at Mississippi State University.

From a noisy room to a speaker with an accent, a cold, or a voice wrenched by tears, distractions work against listeners. Trying to figure out why the person is talking can help you focus, Couvillion says. Does he want help with a problem, as Bill did? Is she trying to persuade you? Is she simply passing along information? When your thoughts drift, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Rosenthal suggests. Find something of interest in what the speaker is saying.

Time to Talk

If you’re trying to listen but you just don’t get it, ask the speaker questions to clarify. “Are you saying that …?” or “What did you mean by …?” can help.

Once you think you understand, restate what you’re hearing the person say, but in your own words, says Couvillion. This is your chance to show you’ve been listening.

Every speaker hopes for an attentive listener. Maria’s wish is that people who listen with their eyes will also listen with their ears. She says, “If you see a challenge with your eyes, use your ears to verify.”

The Conflict Listening Challenge

What do you do if a friend accuses you of gossiping about her? Or if a parent says you must stay home on Saturday night? Master listeners deal with conflicts by hearing the person out, reacting calmly, and focusing on the future.

Ineffective listeners tend to start arguing easily–making judgments before they understand, says Carol Rosenthal of Utah State University. “Hold your fire–don’t judge too soon.”

And let go of the need to be right, says communications expert Patricia Aqui at Washington State University. A better goal is to come to an understanding about each other’s opinions and beliefs. You might, for example, not agree with your friend about what it means to gossip. Saying something like “1 can see how you would feel that way …” shows you’re trying to understand the speaker’s concerns.

When the speaker is finished, repeat what you’ve heard using “I” messages. Just leave out any words or phrases the speaker may have said when angry that could add to the friction.

Brainstorming conflict solutions helps both the speaker and listener to move on. Look for places where you do agree. Then try to resolve the conflict and set ground rules for the future.

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