Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
The art of listening
Updated: Mar 20
When we think of communication, what first comes to mind is likely the act of conveying information; but without a receiver are we really communicating? True communication involves sending and receiving – talking and listening. There’s an old saying that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason – we need to listen more than we speak.
In spite of that wisdom, what do we concentrate on in communication classes? Creating messages… speaking with clarity… using innovative visuals… presentation skills. All worthwhile skills, but listening well is neglected. What do we know about listening and how can we develop our listening skills?
What does it mean to listen? Is hearing the same as listening?
No. It is only a part of the process. To listen goes beyond hearing. We can hear sounds without understanding them or even seeking to understand. To truly listen is to not only hear but also seek to gain a deeper understanding of the message being conveyed.
What does listening well require?
A literature search for “active listening” will produce varied lists of what effective listening entails. I would like to propose 5 essential qualities of listening that an effective communicator will demonstrate:
Listening requires us first to pay attention. This is essential and often very hard to do. Take note of how easily you are distracted and how difficult it can be to give someone your full attention.
Technology is a major barrier to paying attention. Can you give a person and a screen attention at the same time? No, you can’t, so don’t try. Imagine going to a therapist and paying them to listen to you but the entire appointment they are engrossed in their phone or computer screen. Would you feel heard? Would you make another appointment? No.
How do you pay attention? You intentionally focus on the speaker. Turn your entire body in their direction. Lean in. Focus your eyes on their face and make eye contact. Clear your mind of distractions.
Have you ever had a young child seek your attention and put their hands on your face and turn it towards theirs to look at them? People need to feel seen to feel heard. Hmm…we also have two eyes and only one mouth.
Eye contact is not only essential for paying attention, but also for the second quality of effective listening…
Listening well requires observing the feelings of others and responding with empathy, feeling what others are feeling. Empathy is achieved best face-to-face because a person’s eyes are a window to their emotions.
To listen with empathy is to observe not only what is conveyed in someone’s eyes, but also their body movements, posture, voice tone, and cadence. All of these nonverbal messages add meaning to the words being spoken.
When we listen well, with empathy, our voice tone and body language mirror the person we are listening to. We show our concern and care through verbal and nonverbal cues. When we demonstrate empathy others open up and become increasingly willing to communicate.
When we listen to something that is emotionally charged or possibly negative, we have a natural tendency to “fight or flight.” However, if instead of getting defensive, arguing, or retreating we maintain our composure and calmly hear someone out before responding, we can achieve a greater depth of understanding.
Our audience will feel heard and listened to and will in turn be more open to listening to us. A phrase that works well to elicit more sharing is “tell me more” spoken calmly and sincerely.
Listening well allows our true selves to be revealed and accepted. It is not fake or forced. Listening well both gives and receives. It shares ideas and emotions freely. It is life-giving. When we are vulnerable and real we are able to connect with others in meaningful ways.
The term “active listening” implies taking action to solicit more information and feedback through questions and verbal and nonverbal cues. It includes paraphrasing what you heard, checking for understanding, and seeking clarification where needed. It is NOT listening to respond or interrupt, it is listening to fully understand.
Which of the characteristics above challenge you the most?
Listening is a skill we can all work on. As children, we practiced listening when we played games such as Telephone or Simon Says. As adults, improv games are a proven approach to improving our listening skills. One such improv activity is called the Story Exchange. (1) Here’s how it works…
Each participant in the group is assigned a number written on an index card (an alternative approach is to give each person a playing card from a traditional deck of cards).
Then, everyone pairs up. Each person tells their partner a true story from their life lasting no more than 60 seconds. The listener asks no questions and does not interrupt. After each has had a turn, they exchange cards and are instructed to find a new partner.
The process is repeated, however, instead of telling your own story, you now tell the story you just heard in the first person attempting to use the same words, gestures, and feelings. When each new partner has had a turn, exchange cards (so that the card remains with the story), and everyone finds a new partner (making sure they are not paired with a card they have seen before), and the process is repeated.
After several rounds, bring the group back together in a circle and have each person tell the story they just heard (the one that goes with the card they are holding).
Once all stories are told, debrief: How did we do? Could you recognize when someone was telling YOUR story? Which elements were easiest to recall (e.g., facts, feelings, or intentions)? What was your experience of listening to the stories? How did your experience change when you knew you’d have to repeat the story? How can we become better listeners?
Did you know? Improvisation exercises and techniques are being used to train medical students and practitioners to be more empathetic listeners. For more on this topic visit: http://www.improvdoc.org/ Could you benefit from learning how to listen well? Me, too!!
"A wise old owl lived in an oak, The more he saw the less he spoke The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?" ~ Source Unknown
1. Koppett, K., Training to Imagine: practical improvisational theatre techniques for trainers and managers to enhance creativity, teamwork, leadership, and learning. 2013, Sterling, Va.: Stylus Pub.
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