Communication is the exchange of ideas and feelings among people. Humans are social animals who communicate with each other on a daily basis. It is through communication that we establish relationships with others. Unfortunately, there are times when communication breaks down which results in misunderstandings and strained relationships. When does the flow of communication get interrupted?
When we think of communication, we are quick to relate it to excellent public speaking skills, how to be charismatic, how to engage your audience and win them over. That is only partially true. Listening is, I believe, also an important skill to have to communicate effectively. If we do not listen, we won’t understand the information transmitted to us which would then give rise to misunderstandings.
Based on a research done in 2001 by Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. and Proctor, R. it appears that almost half of the time we spend communicating is spent on listening. Doesn’t that make listening a very important skill to have?
When I “listen” to what others have to say, it is not only hearing them utter words that come out of their mouths. It is understanding their feelings, listening to their tone and watching their body language too. Effective listening is about picking up both verbal and non-verbal cues from the speaker.
On our holiday in Japan last year, my ex-manager asked if Daniel and I get into arguments. The answer is, we do. Most of the time, it’s because we, for some reason, stop listening to what the other party has to say. When arguing, I find myself like a broken record, repeating my point. I would talk over Daniel, not processing a single word he’s got to say. Mentally, my brain shuts itself down and I only hear my voice. This is really not ideal, in fact it’s bad. It is only after cooling down that I find out he’s got a point (maybe 50% of the time). If I had listened effectively, we could have avoided the argument altogether.
Here are some qualities I think a good listener possesses or does:
1. Stop talking
If you’re going to continue talking, how are you going to listen to what others have to say?
2. Focus on the speaker
Don’t be distracted. Keep eye contact but don’t stare crazily into their eyes to cause fear! I think it is important to let your body language show that you are listening to the speaker so that they feel like they can speak their minds. Don’t you feel like you can’t “tell your story” when the person you’re speaking to is doing something else?
3. Have an open mind
We have different values and attitudes in life. That makes everyone unique and interesting. Even if the speaker says something that you disagree with, wait till they’re done before voicing your views. Understand that people are entitled to have a different view from yours, even if theirs is silly! At least try to understand their viewpoint.
4. Listen to speaker’s tone
The way I say “Daniel” can show if I’m angry or delighted with him. And of course, the volume of my voice plays a part too.
5. Watch the speaker’s body language
You’ll be surprised to find that body language speaks really loudly. Watch out for gestures, eye movements, facial expressions etc. Those can tell you if someone is comfortable or not and could provide the listener with additional information.
Can such qualities be applied internationally?
Japanese Aizuchi (あいづち)
If you’ve ever seen Japanese people communicate, you would have realised that the listener is always nodding his head, saying “hai“, “un“, “soudesu“, “naruhodo” etc – that’s like saying “yes” and “I see” in English.
These are frequent interjections used in Japanese conversations to show that the listener is paying attention and understands the information transmitted. This was something foreign when we were learning Japanese at university. My teachers grouped us into groups of 4-5 and made a video of us interviewing a native Japanese speaker. It did feel very unnatural to English speakers who are more accustomed to NOT make any verbal sounds when listening to the speaker. Imagine always having to say “yes” or “I see” in English while the other party is speaking. Won’t that make you sound like you’re rushing him/her to finish what he/she has to say? Aizuchi was very distracting to begin with but it was a skill we had to learn to communicate effectively with Japanese people.
It is interesting to see that there are cultural differences in listening practices. Intercultural communication is one of my favourite topics and research that I did at university. While it’s considered polite to remain quiet and listen to what someone else has to say in most English speaking countries, remaining silent while listening to a Japanese person speak can make them feel uneasy.
What other qualities do you think a good listener should possess? Have you ever experienced a difference in communication skills from other cultures?
- The Art of Leadership Lies in Communicating Like One (benchmarkemail.com)
- What kind of listener are you? (onlinecultus.com)
- Listening Skills: Learning to Hear More Than Words (udemy.com)