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PATRICIA MCTAGUE-LOFT, MS, LMFT, FAPA, SAP
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Posted on: December 31, 2017
Active Communication Requires One Person to Talk and the Other to Listen… and Both to Do Their Parts Well
Listening is the other half of communication. Our first thought, when we think about communication, may be to consider the speaker’s ability to convey ideas effectively. What we often forget is that without a listener the speaker may as well be talking to the wind. Just as effective speaking is an acquired skill, so is good listening. Some do it better than others. But all of us can learn to enrich our own listening skills.
Think about what happens when you hear someone speak. You pay attention to the person’s appearance, to activity in the background, to what you did earlier in the day, to a conversation you had with someone else, or to your counterargument, and how you will present it. Your mind flits from topic to topic as you take in only fragments of what the other person says. It seems a wonder that people understand each other as well as they do. The speaker conveys only a portion of the real meaning of an intended idea – and the listener may pick up on only a fraction of the information transmitted. We think we know what the speaker was trying to say, but often we are absolutely wrong. (Have you ever played the “rumor game” in a large circle? The first person whispers a message to the next in line, and this message goes from person to person until it gets to the end of the circle. Something like “two kittens were playing with a ball of string” easily mutates into “the lion sleeps tonight” as the message is relayed around the circle.)
Listening is itself a form of communication. Listening to another person sends the message that you care and that you are truly interested in the other person’s ideas. Without the ability to listen effectively, true intimacy and mutual respect between partners, two of the hallmarks of a successful relationship, are not even possible. When you fail to listen to your partner, you may impart the message that he or she doesn’t count, that you are the one with all the knowledge, and that you lack respect for your partner. These are hardly the qualities of a thriving and mutually beneficial relationship. Effective listening means that you want to learn from, enjoy, care about, trust, understand, and nurture your partner. A good listener sends the message that he or she is interested in the world and to new ideas and life experiences. To listen well is one way to show that you can love well.
The first step in mastering good listening skills is to become aware of why listening is important in your life and your relationships. And the next step is simply to start doing it. Practice active listening whenever you can.
Here are a few rules to start the process:
Listening is more than passively remaining silent while the other person talks. It is the other half of an active collaborative process. The first level is attentive listening. In this mode we take the position that we are genuinely interested in the other person’s point of view. We accept the fact that we have something to learn from the interaction. However, this level of listening has its limitations. Even though we are attentive, we still make assumptions about the message and we tend to fill in the gaps with whatever it is that we want to hear. At this level we don’t check to see if what we have heard is what the speaker really meant to say.
The second, and more powerful, level is active listening (or reflective listening). This assumes that communication is truly a two-way process that involves giving feedback. and give feedback.
Our inability to listen is often at the root of our interpersonal conflicts.
Real listening is a skill that takes practice and an honest look into how you deal with the world. If you tend to take a distrustful or combative stance toward other people most of the time, it may be hard to engage in healthy and open listening. The same holds true if you need to please others or form dependent relationships with other people much of the time – it becomes hard to truly hear what they are trying to say…and you will hear only what you need to hear.
If you take a distrustful or combative stance toward other people, it may be hard to engage in healthy and open listening.
Take a look at some of the common obstacles to active listening that typically interfere with healthy communication. Learn to recognize them when they are happening. And remember that obstacles can usually be removed.
Reciprocal listening is a powerful tool for couples who need to improve their communication. Couples who try this may become aware of how limited their communication has been in the past. They also learn an effective technique, which can increase the respect, trust, and intimacy of their relationship. This exercise may seem structured and perhaps contrived at first, but stay with it. The rewards can be immense.
The couple decides on a minor disagreement that they need to talk about. Each partner takes turns being either the speaker or the listener. The speaker has five minutes to speak without interruption. As speaker, talk about the problem as you see it. Present your argument briefly and stick to the point. Be sure to use “I statements” to present your views and don’t place the blame on your partner (that is, just talk about how you feel about the conflict without putting your partner in a defensive position). After five minutes your partner (the listener) will verbally summarize what he or she has heard. This allows the speaker to let the listener know if anything has been left out or if it has been misinterpreted. Keep going until the speaker feels that the point has been completely heard.
As the listener, pay close attention to what is being said and try to attune yourself to your partner’s needs. When you summarize what your partner has said, make sure you don’t disagree, argue, or criticize. Just repeat what you have heard.
Now switch positions. The speaker becomes the listener and the listener, the speaker. Follow the same procedures until the new speaker feels satisfied that his or her position has been understood. It is important to avoid letting this exercise turn into an argument. Because this is such a powerful way of learning to listen and to communicate better, many people prefer to try it with a therapist present, at least for the first few attempts.
Children need to be heard. Listening to children gives them the feeling that they count, that they matter. They can draw on the strength and experience of an adult whom they trust – and they trust those who give them stable and consistent attention. It is during childhood that they develop a level of self-esteem that may follow them throughout their lives, and the child who has been listened to is much more likely to develop a positive self image than one who has not been heard.
One of the best gifts an adult can provide a child is showing the child how to use active listening skills. Adults can model good listening techniques for children and advise them on ways to listen better by picking out the highlights of a conversation and asking relevant questions.
Use the following listening techniques in dealing with the special needs of children:
Pay special attention as they talk. Maintain good eye contact and forget about the telephone and television. Children can tell by the adult’s reply whether or not they have the adult’s attention.
Know when to, and when not to, use active listening. Use active listening when you are free enough of your own problems to show the empathy and acceptance a child needs. Use it when you are in the mood and have the time. Listening should not be a way to change the child’s behavior. Pay attention to the child’s mood too, and make sure the time is right for the child to talk. Sometimes a child just wants to play or to be left alone.
Listen with patience. A child has a more limited vocabulary and often takes longer to express ideas. Listen as if you had plenty of time. We may feel that we know better and cut the child off – but it is far more beneficial to let the child express a thought freely at his or her own pace.
Children sometimes need encouragement to talk. Children haven’t had much experience in the art of conversation, so we sometimes have to ask questions. When a child feels an adult is attentive, the child will be more willing to open up.
Listen to the child’s nonverbal messages. Children communicate not only through words, but also through their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, energy levels, or changes in behavior. Pay attention to these cues and respond in the way that is best for the child.
The newsletter from which this blog is drawn is intended to offer general information only and recognizes that individual issues may differ from these broad guidelines. Personal issues should be addressed within a therapeutic context with a professional familiar with the details of the problems. ©2017 Simmonds Publications: 5580 La Jolla Blvd., 306, La Jolla, CA 92037. Website: www.emotionalwellness.com
Posted in: Family Counseling
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