Are you listening?

The only thing I find more disappointing than bumping into a slow driver in the left lane on I-75, is trying to share something important with someone who doesn't listen well.  They'll both take the wind right out of your sails and deflate an otherwise exhilarating opportunity.  So, because I have no idea what to do with those who insist on holding tight at 65 in that left lane, I will offer the following tips to those in need of a listening tune-up.

 #1 Check your agenda at the door.  Most people don’t listen well because they enter a conversation clouded by their personal agendas and assumptions.  Good listening requires that you set aside the personal feelings, opinions and assumptions you hold about your friend or the topic of conversation at hand.  While you may not necessarily agree with your friend’s position, if you maintain an open mind you can come to understand it.   

#2  Attend closely.  Because your mind’s ability to process language and information greatly exceeds the rate of speech at which most persons talk, its easy to start thinking about other things while you’re listening.  However, good listening demands that all of your attention be directed at the friend or spouse to whom you’re listening. 

#3 Keep eye contact.  I recently read a study suggesting that only 7% of meaning is communicated through words; the other 93% is derived through the interpretation of nonverbal information.  A good listener keeps the eye of the speaker because it allows them to better take in the subtle nonverbal cues that tell you not only what another person is saying, but the deeper emotional content and meaning inherent in what they are sharing.

#4 Reflect back what you hear.  When your friend or spouse gets to the end of a thought or idea, reflect the key points back to them to make sure that you’re hearing them correctly.  You’ll be surprised by how often you’re getting it wrong. 

#5 Express your understanding.  When you think that you’ve come to understand your friend or spouse’s perspective, let them know. This usually occurs when you either understand their flow of logic or find yourself connecting the dots between the current conversation and other facets of your friend’s personality or experience.  It also happens when you find yourself recalling a situation where you experienced something similar.  When this happens, let your spouse know; but also be careful not to say so much as to direct the attention away from your friend or spouse and toward yourself.  

#6 Express your empathy.  Once you’ve come to genuinely understand what your spouse or friend is sharing with you, it’s very likely that you’re also feeling empathy for them as well.  Empathy is the emotional experience that parallels that of the listener’s.  It is feeling something with or for someone as opposed to feeling something toward or at them.  While the latter emotional reaction may be important later on in a dialogue, an accurate empathy is the marker for good listening.  

Give a gift.  If you've camped your Prius in that left lane and there's a line of cars behind you, give it up.  And the next time you find that someone you care about is trying to share something important with you, slow down and listen.  Give them a gift.  Feeling heard, understood and cared for by another person is a powerful and healing experience.  In a good friendship or in a good marriage, its the glue that solidifies a bond and deepens intimacy.  

- Jeff Pipe

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