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10.14.2014 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How to Practice the Art of Listening

If you want to be a good communicator, you have to practice the art of listening.  Too often we think we’re listening when what we’re actually doing is hearing.  We hear what the other person is saying but only enough to form our own response.

The art of listening requires something entirely different.  It requires that we listen with the full intention of understanding.  When we understand what someone else is really saying, we can then respond in more appropriate ways.

In practicing this art, you my want to listen for a few specific things:

1. Choice of Words

A person’s choice of words tells you how they are thinking.  Last week’s blog, "What Every Business Owner Should Learn From Professional Speakers" addressed the issue of carefully choosing your own words.  It’s equally important for you to listen to how other people choose their words. When you understand their thinking, you can choose words that will help them consider another option, or you can choose words that will help them better understand your position.

How we make meaning of a situation is reflected by our use of language.  When you pay attention to someone’s choice of words, you’re that much closer to understanding their meaning-making system. This deeper level of understanding will give you leverage in responding to their wants and needs.

For example, one of the things we’ve noted in our research about time and money is that people who score in the low scarcity category often refer to money as a “necessary evil.”  Those who score in the abundant categories, however, describe money as a “ resource” or “tool.”

One perspective is not better than the other.  It’s just different.  If I’m coaching an entrepreneur who indicates that money is a necessary evil, his choice of words helps me know how his thinking may be impacting his ability to earn.  I now have information to begin a more meaningful dialogue with this individual. We might center our initial discussion around his perceptions on money.

2.  Tone of Voice

A person’s tone of voice tells you what they are feeling. When we speak, our words are often couched in some level of emotion. As you practice the art of listening, you want to pay close attention to tone of voice.

In some instances, it might be useful to mirror someone’s tone.  In other moments, it might be more appropriate to use an opposite tone of voice.  If a person is speaking to you in a loud and angry tone, mirroring that tone will indicate an aggressive stance on your part and may only serve to exacerbate the situation.

If, however, someone indicates an angry tone and you use a calm assertive tone of voice, you may find that you can disarm the situation.

People want to be heard and understood. Often our emotions rise up without warning.  By carefully listening for emotions and responding appropriately, you help the other person become more aware of what they are feeling. When you respond to those feelings in an appropriate manner, they feel understood.

Tone of voice can serve as a bridge for understanding.  Learn to pay attention to tone (yours and theirs) and watch how much easier it is to build meaningful interactions with the people you encounter.

3. Want or Desire

The person you’re listening to has a want or desire.  Unfortunately, they may not always know exactly what that want or desire at the outset of your conversation.  Your job as the listener is to help them clarify.

You’ll find that when you listen for choice of words and tone of voice, you’ll quickly come to understand something about this want or desire.  In other words, you will hear things that aren’t even being said.

The way you help the other person clarify their want or desire is by paraphrasing what you think you’ve heard them say.  This is where the art comes in because paraphrasing requires timing and finesse.

If you jump in too soon with what you think the person said, and you’re off base, he will feel invalidated and misunderstood.  If you use the wrong choice of words, he will feel like you didn’t hear him at all.

Listen until you are certain you have a depth of understanding. Begin the paraphrase with text book wording like, “Am I hearing you say . . . .?”  Then, fill in with their own language as close as you possibly can.

One of two things will happen.  The communicator will either agree or disagree.  Either way, he will offer further explanation. You have now created space for open dialogue—which is the point of all communication.  Our goal is to listen and respond to one another.  Communication is never a one-way street.

The art of listening is like a dance between words, emotion, and desire.  When you practice the elements I’ve outlined above, you’ll find this dance exhilarating.  You’ll also create more results.

Remember, it’s always about results.  Everything else is conversation.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. October 14, 2014