Knock, Knock. Are You Listening?

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Do you ever find yourself struggling to stay focused during conversation? Sometimes, you can’t help yourself but let your mind wander off when you’re supposed to be fully engaged with others. Everyone, including myself, is guilty of doing this whether it’s out of being sleep deprived and tired, information overload or just sheer boredom and disinterest. However, we all know that not only do words matter when it comes to creating a dialogue but also other less visible cues that indicate to others that you are in fact listening.

Of course, most of the time, when asked if you’re listening, your automatic response is yes. But it is important to note that listening should not be confused with hearing. According to a Psychology Today article, “Hearing is a physiological act; listening involves our ability to unpack the meaning of words, and the silence in between.” You can even take a handy-dandy “Listening Skills Test” to see if you’re a good or a bad listener.

So let’s say you take the test and you find out that you’re listening skills are not up to the level they should be, what can you do? Good news, active listening is a skill that can be honed much like other skills! 

As noted in another Psychology Today article, a recent study by University of Munich’s Michaela Pfundmair and colleagues that shows how oxytocin reacts in someone’s brain when it comes to active listening. The study also highlights the “four-ear model” theory by Friedemann Schulz von Thun based on the following four different dimensions of communication: Factual content, self-revelation, relationship and appeal (English translation via Wikipedia).

It’s useful to know that there’s even a scientific study that shows people do respond differently depending on how you present yourself. But what does this all mean and what should you do?

Fear not, for the rest of us, plebeians, whether you are talking one-on-one or in a group setting, you can keep in mind the following basic know-how in the art of listening.

1. First things first, make direct eye contact.

Oh, the power of direct eye contact. Do not dismiss it easily. Even a 5-second eye contact can lead to a better connection between you and the other person. It sets the tone so-to-speak. However, keep in mind that some people are not comfortable with direct eye contact, so make sure that you’re not getting all laser-eyed.

2. Open up your body language.

In the same vein as making direct eye contact, showing open body language can do wonders when it comes to making the other person relax and in turn make you an effective listener. For instance, don’t cross your arms since it’s a defensive posture. Lean in (literally) during the conversation. Nod your head or use hand gestures to indicate that you are following the other person’s train of thought. Also, unless you have something urgent, refrain yourself from looking at your cellphone/laptop/tablet, etc.

3. Let the other person finish his/her sentence before chiming in.

Let’s be honest here. We’ve all made this mistake more than once, twice and so on. You get the idea. This can’t be stressed enough. Even if you’re in a somewhat heated conversation, let the other person finish first. If anything you want to make sure that you’re not potentially misinterpreting the other person’s intention. To help you rein in your temptation to interject, just breathe and wait for at least three seconds, before following up on someone’s point.

4. Pose follow-up questions/feedback related to the conversation.

So moving right along, now it’s your time to talk. Instead of just voicing your own opinion on certain things, be sure to acknowledge or even include the other person’s point of view when responding. And this is applicable even when you disagree with the other person. In this way, you are telling the other person that you’ve indeed considered what he or she has been talking about thus far.

5. Follow the rhythm of the conversation.

In short, the underlying principle here is to go with the flow. No one is going to go into a conversation thinking I’m going to do this and that. That would defeat the whole purpose of talking to another person. If you think the conversation is petering out, then swoop in and redirect the conversation to another topic, unless you want to end the conversation. Use your improvisation skills.

Lastly, I would like to note the importance of body language and how it plays an integral role in communication. I’ve learned this as a psychology major, and if anyone is interested, here is a useful rundown and another one with pictures on deciphering body language.

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