The human being is a social animal, and therefore interpersonal communication skills are vital to success in life, personally, romantically, and professionally. They include non-verbal communication, active listening, persuasive and effective dialogue with customers, partners, and colleagues, questioning and engaging with the world around us, silences, etc.
Authentic and active listening do not only project a positive image of ourselves, but also enrich our lives, avoid misunderstandings and therefore prevent many unnecessary conflicts in our relationships. In addition, the speaker feels that we are interested in what s/he is saying. In other words, we make others feel valued. We learn from new ideas, insights, and original observations, we get essential feedback for our performance, work, actions, and results. This all leads to smoother, more positive, and richer relationships.
I want you to sincerely ask yourself, are you good at listening? What are your listening styles? There are three main styles:
There are many variations: someone will tell you a somehow related story that supports the “listener’s point of view” (“something similar happened to me…,” “you are complaining a lot, but that’s nothing compared to everything I needed to go through/what I overcame when…”); people will minimize your struggles and ordeal (“this is not such a big deal,” “this has happened to all of us and we are all here, alive and kicking,” “Life is unfair, so what? Life is tough and so are we!”); and try to comfort and calm you down (“Sleep well. I have no doubts you will see things differently tomorrow,” “Take it easy, things will get better somehow!,” “There is nothing else you can do about it, so just sit back and relax. I’m sure everything will turn out just fine”).
This listening style is mainly empathetic. It is about providing a space and time for the other person to be able to open up and talk with confidence and easy, so he or she can bring their feelings, ideas, and emotions. The speaker should feel that s/he is heard, understood, and accepted.
Although it may seem a waste of time, it is quite the opposite. We are talking about active listening, it is not about being quiet or passive. On the contrary, you should start by showing the speaker that you want to know more about it (“Tell me more please,” “I am all ears”). Ask open questions to encourage him/her to clarify and elaborate, e.g., “If so, then what are you going to do about it?” “What are your real options?”
Then, as dialogue progresses, we will ask him/her more specific questions to explore what obstacles and difficulties s/he is facing, to deepen our understanding on what is going on, to discern alternative choices, what their pros and cons are, and help him/her to find the best option, e.g., “What may happen if you take this step?” “What would happen if you don’t take any actions/just wait and see?”
Before even hearing him/her saying the first word, an active listener is already gathering information from the body language, observing how s/he looks, dresses, stands or sits, his/her facial expression, emotions, and gestures.
It is important to discover what is not being said, what has been considered irrelevant, unworthy of consideration or perhaps too painful or uncomfortable to communicate (“I can’t go on like this any longer,” “I am a failure”, “I will never recover from this”). It is also about exploring, challenging people’s generalizations and biases (“I should have known better. All women are basically whores who use sex for personal gain,” “Men do not want to marry or stable relationships anymore, they just want no-strings-attached sex”) and possible psychological pitfalls, exaggerations, and distortions (“My boss and coworkers don’t care about me as a person, only about my productivity and contribution to the bottom line,” “I am so stupid for this to have happened to me”).
It is understood that solutions, if any, cannot come from outside, but must come from within us. It is about helping people to think deeply, open up and express their feelings and true selves by asking them questions, by repeating and paraphrasing what they have just said. It may help them to clarify their problems, emotions, and feelings, and their ideas, strategies, and solutions to cope with them. Let me illustrate this with an example where a mother talks to a teacher about her child.
Mother: “I have come to this meeting because I don’t know what is wrong with my child. I know he’s a good boy and would never harm anyone. He is very naive and good-natured but he wastes a lot of time playing violent video games, chatting with friends, and watching videos. My son watches YouTube for hours every day, I cannot get him to turn it off. I know we’re moving to a video-centric world. To be honest, I don’t see him reading or studying much. He is smart but very lazy. I don’t really know how my son is performing in his class or any other class for that matter.”
Teacher: “If I have understood you correctly, you are very concerned about your child’s academic performance because he is not studying much.”
Mother: “I’m not sure if you can grasp what a tough time I’m going through with my son. He goes out with his friends and has been getting drunk for the last year and a half. I am really desperate, I don’t know what I can or should do. I am very afraid every time he goes out. I’m scared that one day I will receive a call either from the hospital or the police.”
Teacher: “I see that you are very worried and distressed about your son. I’m really sorry.”
You can also open and explore new possibilities (“If you try… what would happen?”). It is about inviting them to explore new ideas, suggestions, and solutions, draw their own conclusions and making them responsible for their own decisions: “So, what do you think is your best bet?” “What are the pros and cons of each option?” “What are the benefits and possible risks?” “What are you going to do?”
Finally, we can bring new information for further analysis and consideration, for instance, “I would like you to visit the GreenFacts portal to learn more about alcohol and its effects. What do you think?” You may also want to challenge some of the assumptions and generalizations being made. You may also take the opportunity to show some blind spots, for example, self-serving or confirmation bias (“What human beings are best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact,” Warren Buffett).