When I am asked about what the most important skill is to be a great communicator, I usually respond that it is to be a great listener. Great communication skills, and therefore great listening skills, are one of the cornerstones of any good relationship, whether it is with your life partner, parents, children, colleagues or friends. This article describes how to listen well and covers the three different levels of listening. It also describes how understanding other’s body language and values can help you to improve your listening skills.
Benefits of listening
The benefits of being a great listener include the ability to:
- understand what motivates and drives other people
- develop and maintain trusting relationships
- demonstrate your commitment to someone else
- help avoid unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings
- have a better understanding of what is being said
- read between the lines and become more aware of what is not being said
- understand and respond to people’s state of mind (or emotional state) more effectively
- respond by expressing things in a way the speaker will understand (and so be understood better)
How to listen well (the theory!)
There are three levels of listening:
- The first level is intense listening. When you are listening intensely, your full attention is on the person speaking. At this level of listening you will be aware of the full impact of the speaker’s choice of words, use of tonality, and their body language.
- Second level is generalised listening. With generalised listening you are dipping in and out of the first level and third level depending upon your level of interest in what is being said.
- Third level is peripheral listening. With peripheral listening you are aware that someone is speaking, but whilst they are talking you may be prejudging what is being said, thinking about how it applies to you or considering what points you want to put across from your point of view.
The great listener will be spending a lot of time at level 1.
One of the biggest barriers to listening well at Level 1 can be our emotions. When we are emotional, our attention is taken away from the person speaking into our own reactions. The best listeners can keep calm and keep their attention on the person who is talking.
The best listeners typically:
- keep an open mind by avoiding making too many pre-judgements or assumptions about what is being said.
- avoid jumping to conclusions too early (e.g. being tempted to finish people’s sentences!)
- listen for the level of detail being communicated (the level of detail is also sometimes called the level of “chunking” of the information)
- listen for the values of the speaker (based on what is most important – see more on this below)
- listen for areas of ambiguity and ask good questions to achieve clarity
You can often tell when someone is listening to you, if they keep good eye contact and they are responding to what you are saying rather than justifying themselves or their opinion. They will also tend to talk to you “in the same language”. For example, they will use the same words to describe things as you do and give a similar level of detail (and so they will also use similar “chunks” of information).
The importance of body language
There are some significant studies that have indicated the importance of body language and facial expression in determining the meaning and impact of your communication. They also suggest that the tonality adopted has at least the same impact as the actual words used.
If you want your communication to have an impact, it is more effective if your words, your tone and your body language are congruent. If they are incongruent there is strong evidence to suggest they will get most of the meaning from your communication through the body language you are adopting.
Body language is also important when you are the person listening. If you are listening at level 1, it is likely that you will maintain eye contact as they are speaking, nod your head when appropriate, smile or frown to reflect what is being said and keep your body turned towards them. Any time you are listening at level 3, it is likely your facial expression and eyes will reflect this distracted attention, and your partner, friend or colleague will notice, even if your words stay on track.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus!
One of the long-standing favourite books at our retreat is Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus written by John Gray. Although it was written many years ago about relationships between men and women, the important elements about listening skills and communication still apply. One message from this book is that men tend to communicate differently than women. Women tend to like someone to listen to and empathise with how they feel, whilst men will typically share only problems that they are able to solve. (Note, male and female does not necessarily directly mean gender in this instance and we can all communicate differently, irrespective of gender. The importance is understanding how your partner communicates and wants to be listened to).
At the end of a working day, when they get home, the book suggests that men tend to “go to their cave” and process what has happened during their day. At the same time, when women get home they like to talk about their day to their partner and share whatever has happened or been bugging them. Although these are only generalities, John Gray says that the temptation for most men is to try and find solutions or fix a woman’s problem, rather than listening and giving full (level 1) attention, and women are puzzled (or frustrated) why men don’t communicate openly about how they feel.
Awareness of your partner’s emotional states and preferred ways of communicating can help build strong relationships in the long run.
The importance of understanding values
A person’s values are defined by what is important to them. People take actions and will communicate in ways that demonstrate what is important to them. For example, if someone has a high value on family, they will typically bring conversations back to members of their family and will be influenced with reference to their family’s needs.
A good listener will pick up on someone’s values quickly and ideally frame conversations in such a way that the recipient can see the relevance of what’s being discussed against what they value. It is easy to listen to someone who was talking in your own value system.
For example, if one person in a relationship has a high value on sport, and the other has a high value on family, it makes sense for the family-centred person to communicate with their partner by explaining how spending time with the family will help their partner to improve their sporting skills or knowledge, or get more time to play sport. Take a moment to think about your partner – what is important to them? Next time you are speaking, really use your listening skills to notice what they talk about. This can help you to communicate with them, in their value system. My mum has a high value on family, yet zero interest in sport. However, my dad loves going to the football matches, particularly with his family. If he explains it as spending time with his family (me) then my mum’s values are being met and she is happy. Win-win.
Creating strong partnerships
It is unrealistic to expect other people to live in line with your values. The best and strongest relationships endure when there is a bit of give-and-take and one side recognises that the values of their partner need to be equally met.
Negotiation skills are great to use in a healthy relationship. Great negotiation has two key components:
1) knowing what you want and
2) being willing to listen and compromise based upon what is important to others.
To compromise requires an understanding of what the other person is trying to achieve. This can be done by using your listening skills. Once a common understanding comes people can become very creative to form a solution that supports both parties and can create a “win-win”.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this brief article on listening for strong relationships and can put into practice some of the suggestions in all of your relationships. We regularly welcome couples, mums and daughters, sisters, to the retreat in Spain who enjoy spending time together away from the stresses of everyday life. The La Crisalida programme is designed to help people to re-connect, re-balance and re-energise mind, body and spirit. Come to the retreat and try it for yourself.