Can you hear me now?

If you use a wireless telephone, you have probably asked that question many times.   Both sending and receiving signals are essential to telecommunication.  If your phone cannot send a signal or if it cannot receive a signal, you cannot receive information much less communicate with another person.

Being able to hear the words is the first step in communication.  This step seems so basic that even mentioning it appears irrelevant.  However, think of the times you have been in a crowd or in a noisy room and hearing the person talking is difficult.  How many times have you been in a presentation when the speaker refuses the microphone by announcing “I have a loud voice”?  Just because a speaker can talk loudly does not mean that persons in the audience can hear or make out the words.  (Can you hear me now?)

So, what is the difference between hearing and listening?

Hearing is receiving the sound waves and deciphering the frequencies.  Hearing involves the physical act of using our ears—the receptacles for catching sound waves and sending them to the brain for interpretation.  Being out of “ear shot” means your ears are not receiving the sound waves.  It is possible, however, to hear and not listen.  (Have you heard anything I’ve said?)

Listening is one of the most important and powerful skills we have.  Listening is hearing what is said and understanding what is meant.   How well we listen has a major impact on job effectiveness and quality relationships.

In fact, listening is such a large part of everyday living you would think we would be good at it.  However, studies show we remember between 25 and 50 percent of what we hear. When we talk with colleagues or family members, they might pay attention to half of the conversation.  Turn that around, and when you are receiving directions or being presented with information or feelings, you are not hearing the whole message.  And, what if we have not captured the most important parts?

How do you know that what you are hearing is what is being said?

First, pay attention.  Look at the speaker.  Give eye contact.  Put away your computer and cell phone.  Your non-verbal communication is “talking” even when you are not saying a word.  Let your gestures and facial expressions convey your attention.  Be quiet.  You know the power of paying attention if you have talked with a person and have felt as though you were the only person in the room.

Second, think about what the speaker is saying.   Listening is not about you.  It is not taking turns talking.  Listening is working to understand the speaker’s messages—what is the speaker thinking?  What is the speaker feeling?

Third, clarify by asking questions.  Paraphrase.  Restate without judgment what you hear the messages to be.  This process tests your understanding of what you heard and of what the speaker meant.   Use statements and questions such as What I am hearing is, Sounds like you are saying, Is this what you mean?  As active listeners, we are seeking for information about the speaker’s thinking and feelings.  The meaning of the message is the speaker’s responsibility.  As the listener, you may ask:  “What I thought you just said is XXX, is that what you mean?”  If the speaker says, “No,” you will need to ask more questions for clarification.

Next, respond appropriately.  It is easy to take some conversations personally, but don’t let emotions guide the discussion.  Ask for information, describe your feelings, but do not allow judgmental words in the conversation.  The purpose of active listening is gaining information and perspective.  Nothing is gained by attacking or demeaning others.

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding.  It is assertive (not aggressive) communication where participants are candid, open, honest and respectful.

Being a good listener means we will concentrate on the message, ask questions, reflect, and clarify to ensure we understand the thoughts and feelings of the speaker.  By starting today, we can become more effective communicators, improve workplace productivity, and develop better relationships.

Are you listening now?