Winston Churchill once said that courage is what it takes to stand up and speak but that it is also what it takes to sit down and listen. Mr. Churchill said it much more eloquently than I did, but the truth of that statement still resonates.
In order to succeed, we all must be able to write, speak and listen effectively. Out of these three skills, effective listening is considered the most important, but it is also the most difficult to master. This is because most of us are too focused trying to get our point across rather than truly hearing what the other person is saying. We think that our message is more important than anyone else’s message.
It is possible (and highly beneficial) to become an effective listener, but it takes some thought and effort. This does seem to be counter-intuitive, because listening seems to be so natural. However effort is required to be effective.
So how done improve listening skills? Here are some of my thoughts:
- Concentrate, Concentrate, Concentrate – In the middle of a conversation, many of us realize that we haven’t heard a word the other person has said? The average rate of speech for English speakers in the United States is about 150 words per minute. However, research suggests that we are very capable of listening (with full comprehension) at a rate of 300 words per minute. For some, this number increases to 400-500 words per minute. Because our brain is not being used to full capacity when listening, it is common to “drift off” – to think of further questions or mull something or even think about our plans for the weekend. This is a barrier, and is a direct link to missing/misinterpreting others’ message. Actively concentrate on what others are saying so that effective communication can occur.
- Use nonverbal cues to indicate that you are listening– Most communication experts agree that nonverbal messages can be three times as powerful as verbal messages. Effective communication becomes difficult anytime you send a nonverbal cue that you’re not really listening. Begin to integrate some of these primary nonverbal styles that indicate active listening into your next conversation:
- Maintaining Eye Contact – aim for 60-70% of the time.
- Nodding Your Head Occasionally
- Leaning slightly forward
- Not folding your arms
- Avoid Making Early Judgments – As mentioned above, most people can listen at a faster rate than most speakers talk, so there is a tendency to evaluate too quickly. This is probably the biggest barrier to effective listening. Instead of hearing what is actually being said, ineffective listeners assume (or guess) what the speaker is going to say next, and this leads to an utter failure in the interpretation of the actual message.
- Paraphrase and Ask Questions – Paraphrasing is a great technique for improving your listening and problem-solving skills. First, you have to listen very carefully if you are going to accurately paraphrase what you heard. Second, the paraphrasing response will clarify for the sender that the message was correctly received. Ask questions to clarify points or to obtain additional information. Open-ended questions are the best. They require the speaker to convey more.
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