According to Ralf G. Nichols, the highly regarded communication scholar, the most basic of all human needs is to be understood and to understand others, and the best way to understand another is to listen to them.
I believe that most of us yearn for someone to be interested in us, and to pay us undivided attention as we express ourselves. It seems that for many of us, being seen and heard validates that we exist, that we matter, so it makes sense that we crave this kind of connection and understanding. I know that when someone is really there for me and listens with care and curiosity, I feel a deep warmth and gratitude. I feel a part of something bigger than myself and feel connected to the world around me in a comforting way.
For me, true listening is about engagement and connection with another human being. It is about being interested in what they have to say, how they are saying it and why they are saying.
It is true that listening is a vital part of communication, but I wonder if many of us have been taught to listen well. When I really think about it, I can recall very few people in my youth, who I would say were good listeners. I remember people offering advice and strong opinions. I also remember others interrupting by telling stories of their own, inspired by the topic I had raised, and still others who would change the subject or shut down topics that they decided were too confronting.
Despite the fact that many of us aren’t great at it, listening does not have to be hard work and can be mutually rewarding. If you are truly focussed on the speaker and have the intention to connect with them and understand them, listening can be easy. Most of the time, the speaker just wants you to be present, pay attention and hear what they have to say. They don’t need you to do anything else!
Great listeners create a safe space where someone can express themselves without being criticised, judged or interrupted. And because most people do not want advice and do not want you to solve their problem, a great listener knows that they can relax and focus on understanding what is being said, rather than on what they are going to say in response.
If your intention is to truly understand and connect, your body language and facial expressions usually express this naturally. A leaning forward and soft eye contact and interested facial expression arises. Attention and acceptance of the speaker is exhibited as you sit or stand still and do not let yourself be distracted by the environment.
Great listeners considerately offer minimal reflective responses. They check in and clarify when they are unsure of the meaning. They keep in touch with the speaker in a subtle, relaxed way, always remaining focussed on the speaker and their message, and not their own agenda.
Great listeners give time and space to the encounter. They allow for comfortable silences and can listen without bias to someone who they may have difficulty with. They do not jump to conclusions and decide early on in the conversation that they know what the speaker is going to say. They remain curious, open and interested.
I am getting better at listening. I am learning to relax, speak less and give my full attention to the speaker and their message. It’s not that hard when I become conscious of what is happening in the present moment. It’s breaking the old habits that is the hard part.