active_listening

If there is one thing to make you an effective communicator, it is active listening

This is a sequel to this post on active listening.

In active listening, the magic happens because you shift your attention from yourself to the other person.

You listen with the intention to understand. It is not an intellectual understanding only, but a deep understanding of the person as a whole. You simply make an effort to think and feel like the other person, at least with respect to the issues presented or discussed. You accept the other person by who (s)he is. By doing so, you create the space in which the person can relax and become at integrity with oneself.

There is no judgement, no criticism and no advice.

Setting-up the stage

There are two planes of operation in active listening: setting-up the stage and caring for the message. In this post we focus on how to improve the first plane.  The basic steps of setting-up the stage are:

  1. Acknowledge distractions
  2. Set-up the intention
  3. Keep eye contact
  4. Build rapport
  5. Raise curiosity and maintain interest
  6. Give full attention

Distractions

Before we can actually practice active listening, first we need to become aware of numerous distractions that are on the way. You may need to overcome some in order to create conditions that support you in active listening. Example distractions include:

  • Environment: too noisy, too dark/too bright, uncomfortable chairs, disturbing textures, …
  • Mood or health: bad mood, sleepy, hungry, emotionally aroused, feeling pain, …
  • Poor eye contact: the other person moves eyes away
  • Internal self-talk: a stream of thoughts
  • Unresistable urge to tell own message
  • The message: too boring, too long, too far fetching, …
  • Delivery of the message: accent, use of language, way of explaining,
  • Defense mechanism for e.g. criticism
  • etc

Just by becoming aware what is in our environment and how we feel, we can recognize the distractions and acknowledge them. It is not necessary that all the distractions are solved, although it helps enormously, of course.You may just simply notice things along the line “I’m a bit angry after this email. I’ll be back to it at the end of the day. … Oops, I’m hungry… These curtains are really ugly…. I hear voices on the street. ….I’ll buy something to eat and move to another table… Hmmm, I am a bit cold.  I will take a tea….” Note that this process can be very fast, in a matter of seconds.

This paying attention to distractions is important because we bring them from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind. In doing so, your conscious mind recognizes the distractions and can now focus more freely on listening without perturbations of hidden processes.

Intention

Setting up the intention for active listening is to align your subconscious and conscious mind to support each other. You simply decide to be present in the moment, every single moment. A 15-20 second (or minutes before if possible) of quieting and calming the mind is an essential practice here.

Eye contact

Eye contact is important as it practically reflects whether you are interested in the conversation or not.

Rapport

Perhaps, rapport is the mystical word here. Rapport basically means a harmonious relation, when two or more people are on the same wavelength or ‘in sync’. Some people create rapport at ease, others need more practice. The goal of rapport is to build trust. Hence it is crucial.

The good news is that you can create rapport consciously. The two main techniques are mirroring and finding similarities.

Mirroring. In the first approach you mirror the person’s outside. That is, you match breathing pattern, voice (speed and pitch) and body language (sitting, posture, gestures, face expressions). You do it in a gentle way to reflect the general pattern about the person, not every detail. For instance you may choose to speak faster or modulate the tone of your voice if the person speaks fast and with a high pitch. You may choose to lean to one side and cross the legs if this is what the person does.

All the changes you apply are in a small degree from your natural being, not the exact neither extreme copy of the other person. The reason is that you want it be as natural as possible as you need to maintain it. You can only do it consciously if this is a small step for you. Gentleness is the key here.

Why is it important to mirror the body language? The key here is that our physiology,our body language supports us in creating specific feelings. When you mirror the physiology of the other person, you can perceive some of the feelings and better understand what is going on for her or him. In addition, the person is subconsciously more able to relate to you. See the exercise below.

Finding similarities. In the second approach to building rapport, first you spend the time to find either common interests or common experiences. The common interests can be things such as golf, fashion, computer games, quilting, cooking, dogs, etc. The common experiences include specific hardships or fun experiences, living in a foreign country, studying art, learning to ride a horse, etc. The key is to find something that evokes strong emotions. They help us connect and facilitate the creation of the platform of understanding.

If you really want to learn more, observe people who are powerfully engaged in a conversation. Observe rapport in practice and take the learning points on stage.

Curiosity and interest

The next step is to arise your own curiosity. Just forget everything you knowand see the person or hear the issues as if for the first time. You are on a discovery journey. If you are curious to learn about the other person, rapport comes more naturally.

Full attention

Make a decision to give your attention fully. In doing so, your internal dialog should be killed. If this is not the case, there is a simple trick that can help you. Please keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth. If you maintain this set-up of your tongue, you will notice that internal dialog disappears. If there is however a moment you catch yourself busy with your internal dialog, acknowledge that and return to listening. Please say to the other “I’m sorry, I’ve lost my concentration. Can you repeat what you’ve just said?” The key is to be curious and interested. If you do that, your focus will naturally follow.

Finally, truly engage in listening. Start simple and make one change at a time. You will experience the magic. No doubt.

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Exercise

If you don’t believe that your body posture and gestures induce feelings just try to get into this position:  stand up, feet close to each other, head down, look down, shoulders down and towards chest, slouch, arms down and palms pressing against each other.

What are the feelings that accompany this posture? Keep this posture and generate the feeling of true happiness. How easy is it?

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Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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