Do any of the following sound familiar? (Dad to children) “Listen to your mother!” (Wife to husband) “Please put your phone away and listen to me!” (Teacher to students) “Eyes up front and ears open to listen!” (Boss to company members) “I need everyone to listen to this important announcement!” The list goes on ad infinitum.
Each phrase emphasizes listening as the common component. In my profession as a longtime, licensed mental health therapist, I do much work with systems. A system can be a couple, a family or a sibling group. Organizations and institutions are regarded as systems.
In any system, communication is foundational and listening is the most important part. If one fails to understand the message being expressed, one is bound to fail in providing a meaningful response. Herein lies the root cause of numerous misunderstandings, arguments and complications in the various systems in which one functions.
Why is communication with active, accurate listening so vital? It’s because open, transparent communication builds trust which leads to increased morale, heightened cooperation and ownership, and overall productivity in any type of system.
I see the benefits of active listening similarly to those of Corrine Gonzalez, a marriage and family therapist:
1) Active listening shows one cares and is interested in the content of the other person’s message. It builds trust and respect.
2) Nonverbal communication such as eye contact and nodding reflects engagement. People will talk far more openly if feeling truly heard.
3) Through active listening skills, there’s a better chance of empathically understanding the person, situation, and need. Insight can be gained.
4) The chance of miscommunication is reduced.
5) Active listening helps eliminate conflict, resentment and anger, as assumptions are not made about what another person is thinking and feeling.
Active listening is integral to effective communication. Some psychologists, like Dr. Leon Seltzer, maintain that the most basic human need is to feel understood.
As a therapist, I spend my working hours engaged in active listening, seeing the value continually of healthy communication in a variety of systems. I’m often tasked with helping folks navigate and better communication within their particular spheres.
Why is listening so challenging? It’s been said, speaking is easy; listening is difficult. A modified quote by philosopher, Epictetus, states, “We have two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.” Communication experts report that the average person actively remembers only a fraction of what is said to them.
As I was composing this article, my college-aged daughter popped home. I relayed that I was writing on the topic of listening and how it’s a challenge to do it well. She directly said, “Yes, technology gets in the way.” I found her immediate response interesting as the research I’ve done notes technology is the No. 1 barrier as it’s distracting.
Other barriers, according to business and lifestyle writer Stephanie Vozza, include the following.
1) There’s a natural desire to talk, which impedes listening. One may already be mentally planning one’s next remark. The intent, then, is to quickly respond versus listen to accurately respond. Notable speaker Stephen Covey said, similarly, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
2) Personal preconceptions and biases about someone stops truly listening to them.
3) Egos can get in the way. Leadership author Fred Halstead notes “those who are most secure . . . are the ones who have confidence to listen, respect and value others.”
4) If there’s been a disagreement with someone, it’s often the focus, rather than the kernel of truth they might have to share. It leads to dismissal verses a true conversation.
Effective listening is a vastly undervalued skill. Yet, numerous studies have estimated that the average person spends one-third to half their life listening. It’s a significant skill that takes much practice for mastery as with any skill.
A popular quotation by an unknown author talks about a variety of situations being hard. It relays the choice, aptly, with the challenge of listening.
“. . . Communication is hard. Not communicating is hard. Choose your hard
. . . Pick wisely.”
Dr. Shawn Scholten is a seasoned mental health therapist and co-director of Creative Living Center, the designated mental health provider for Sioux and Lyon counties.