Listen and you will hear

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
In among all that background noise there are people saying things they'd like someone to hear, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken
Has anyone noticed we live in a world that can be full of distractions and "noise?". There’s always something to do, a device to check, a game to play, something to watch or listen to. It’s easy to get sucked into the constant distractions around us but it’s also possible to consciously step aside from that and reconnect with the people we interact with in our everyday lives. Today I want to focus on listening, really listening so we can truly hear people when we engage in conversation.

The cacophony of modern day living, traffic noise, the acoustics in cafes, open plan offices that mean everyone hears every keyboard click and phone call your colleagues make, music in shops and malls and general insidious background sound can literally make it hard to hear others when they speak. However, listening is the glue that holds relationships together both personal and professional. Studies have shown that those who listen well have more successful relationships. As humans we are wired to connect with other humans and listening, as a part of making conversation, is primarily how we do that.

The rise of the digital age in which people spend more time interacting with a screen rather than another living soul has seen an epidemic of loneliness (aka "phoneliness"), anxiety and depression, especially among our younger generations. Dr Tony Fernando, of Auckland University, maintains that "connection is in our genes ...". He states that the connection/compassion circuit for happiness is the most sustainable. When activated it triggers the upward spiral of long-lasting feel-good neurotransmitters. We are wired to feel good when we are connected. Even thinking about previous times when we have been truly connected stimulates the response. The motivation for that connection needs to be genuine, if you try to fake it solely to make yourself feel better, you’re out of luck, those feel good neurotransmitters will remain elusive.

So, back to listening. Research has shown that most of us think we are better listeners than we really are. Probably not that surprising!

When was the last time you really listened to someone, without working out what you wanted to say next while they were still talking? Without looking at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? When was the last time someone really listened to you and were so attentive to what you were saying that you felt truly understood?

The goal of deep listening is to gather information, to understand a person or a situation better. Active listening is about making a conscious decision to hear what people are saying. It’s about being completely focused on others, on both their words and their messages, without being distracted.

According to psychologist Carl Rogers, active or deep listening is the core of every healthy relationship. It’s also the most effective way to bring about growth and change. Those who feel heard tend to be more open and are often less defensive. Good listeners don’t tend to make judgements, they provide a safe environment for others.

By listening carefully when someone speaks, we’re letting them know that what they’re saying is important. People who feel listened to share more information. Interestingly, it’s been found that listening is contagious. When we listen to others, chances are they will be more inclined to listen to us.

The good news is that we can learn to be better listeners; however, listening takes practice. The more we do it, the better we get at it, and the more positive our interpersonal relationships will be.

Here are some pointers for becoming a better listener:

• Imagine how you’d like to be listened to.

• Fully focus on the other person when they’re speaking.

• Concentrate on every word, avoid forming an answer in your head before they’re finished.

• Cultivate compassion.

• Pay attention to body language, do the words match the body language?

• Avoid making judgements, you don’t walk in the other person’s shoes.

• Pay attention to the tone and inflection associated with the words.

• Ask questions that require more than a single word answer.

• Avoid peppering people with questions machine gun style.

• Repeat in your own words what someone has told you (empathetic reflection), it’s like a summary and shows you’ve been listening.

• Acknowledge that you’re listening by nodding or saying "Uh-huh".

Listening is a skill. With any skill it degrades if you don’t do it enough. Some of us may have a stronger natural ability while others may have to work a little harder at it. We can all become better listeners with practice. Listening well can help us understand others better, their motivations, their interests, their attitudes. Listening is essential for creating connection and building co-operative, productive, long-lasting relationships. What is there to not like about becoming a better listener?

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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