Communication Strategies: Listening Choices

Effective listening can be viewed as a process of making choices among a variety of different perspectives which can be visualized as a series of choices along a scale of polar opposites. The most important of these are empathic-objective listening, nonjudgmental and critical listening, surface and depth listening, polite and impolite listening, and active and inactive listening.
Empathic and Objective Listening
Listening involves receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding to what a person means as well as what a person is feeling. To listening effectively, you need to listen with some degree of empathy, the feeling for another’s feelings. To empathize with others is to feel with them, to see the world as they see it, to feel (to some degree) what they feel. Only when you achieve this can you fully understand another person’s meaning.
Although for most communication situations empathic listening is the preferred mode of responding, there are times when you need to engage in objective listening—to go beyond empathy and measure meanings and feelings against some objective reality. It’s important to listen as Peter tells you how the entire world hates him and to understand how Peter feels and why he feels this way. But then you need to look a bit more objectively at Peter and perhaps see the paranoia or the self-hatred. Sometimes you have to put your empathic responses aside and listen with objectivity and detachment.
In making choices among empathic and objective listening, consider these few suggestions:
• Punctuate the message from the speaker’s point of view. See the sequence of communication events as the speaker sees them. If the speaker sees Event A causing Event B (but you see Event B causing Event A, try to role play a bit and see the events in the way the speaker does. And try to figure out how these different perspectives can account for differences in meaning.
• Engage in equal, two-way conversation. To encourage openness and empathy, try to eliminate any physical or psychological barriers to equality (for example, step from behind the large desk separating you from your employees). Avoid interrupting the speaker—which sends the signal that what you have to say is more important.
• Seek to understand both thoughts and feelings. Don’t consider your listening task finished until you’ve understood what the speaker is feeling as well as thinking.
• Avoid “offensive listening,” the tendency to listen to bits and pieces of information that will enable you to attack the speaker or find fault with something the speaker has said.
• Strive to be objective when listening to friends and foes alike. Your attitudes may lead you to distort messages—to block out positive messages about a foe and negative messages about a friend. Guard against “expectancy hearing,” when you fail to hear what the speaker is really saying and hear what you expect to hear instead.
Nonjudgmental and Critical Listening
Effective listening includes both nonjudgmental and critical responses. Effective listening entails nonjudgmental listening (that is, listening with an open mind, with a view toward simply understanding) as well as critical listening (that is, listening with a view toward making some kind of evaluation or judgment). Clearly, engage in nonjudgmental listening first; listen for understanding while suspending judgment. Only after you’ve fully understood the relevant messages should you evaluate or judge.
Listening non-judgmentally, with an open mind, will help you understand messages better; listening with a critical mind will help you analyze and evaluate the messages. In adjusting your nonjudgmental and critical listening, consider these suggestions:
• Keep an open mind and avoid prejudging. Delay your judgments until you fully understand the intention and the content the speaker is communicating. Avoid both positive and negative evaluation until you have a reasonably complete understanding.
• Avoid filtering out or oversimplifying complex messages. Similarly, avoid filtering out undesirable messages. Most of us don’t want to hear that something we believe in is untrue, that people we care for are unkind, or that ideals we hold are self-destructive. Yet it’s important that we reexamine these beliefs by listening to such messages.
• Recognize your own biases. These may interfere with accurate listening and cause you to distort message reception through the process of assimilation—the tendency to integrate and interpret what you hear (or think you hear) to fit your own biases, prejudices, and expectations. Ethnic, national, or religious biases often prevent you from appreciating a speaker’s point of view.
• Avoid sharpening. Recognize and combat the natural human tendency toward sharpening—a process in which one or two aspects of the message become highlighted, emphasized, and perhaps embellished. Often the concepts that are sharpened are incidental remarks that somehow stand out from the rest of the message. Be sure to listen critically to the entire message when you need to make evaluations and judgments.
• Recognize faulty reasoning. See through fallacious reasoning, or when facts are being distorted, or when someone is lying, or when a person is speaking purely out of self-interest.
Surface and Depth Listening
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, in giving the funeral oration for Caesar, says: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. / The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” And later: “For Brutus is an honourable man; / So are they all, all honourable men.” If we listen beyond the surface of Marc Antony’s words, we can see that he does comes to praise Caesar, and to convince the crowd that Brutus was not honorable but decidedly dishonorable—despite the fact that at first glance his words seem to say quite the opposite.
In most messages there’s an obvious meaning that you can derive from a literal reading of the words and sentences, the surface message. But there’s often another level of meaning. Sometimes, as in Julius Caesar, it’s the opposite of the literal surface meaning; at other times it seems totally unrelated. Consider some frequently heard types of messages. For example, Claire asks you how you like her new haircut. On one level the meaning is clear: Do you like the haircut? But if you listen more deeply, the message can reveal another, perhaps more important, meaning: Claire is asking you to say something positive about her appearance. In the same way, the parent who complains about working hard at the office or in the home may, on a deeper level, be asking for an expression of appreciation. The child who talks about the unfairness of the other children in the playground may be asking for comfort and love.
To appreciate these other meanings, listen in depth. If you listen only to the surface-level communication (the literal meaning), you’ll miss the underlying message and will surely miss the opportunity to make meaningful contact with the other person’s feelings and needs. If you say to your parent, “You’re always complaining. I bet you really love working so hard,” you fail to respond to the call for understanding and appreciation.
In regulating your surface and depth listening, consider these simple suggestions:
• Focus on both verbal and nonverbal messages. Recognize both consistent and inconsistent “packages” of messages, and use these as guides for drawing inferences about the speaker’s meaning. Ask questions when in doubt. Listen also to what is omitted. Remember that speakers communicate by what they leave out as well as by what they include.
• Listen for both content and relational messages. The student who constantly challenges the teacher is, on one level, communicating disagreement over content. However, on another level—the relationship level—the student may be voicing objections to the instructor’s authority or authoritarianism. The instructor needs to listen and respond to both types of messages.
• Make special note of self-reflexive statements, statements that refer back to the speaker. People inevitably talk about themselves. Whatever a person says is, in part, a function of who that person is. Attending carefully to those personal, self-reference messages will give you greater insight into the person and the person’s messages and meanings.
• Don’t disregard the literal meaning. You need to listening to both surface and deep meanings if you want to truly understand that a person means. Balance your listening between the surface and the underlying meaning. Respond to the different levels of meaning in the messages of others as you would like others to respond to yours—be sensitive but not obsessive, attentive but not overly eager to uncover hidden messages.
Polite and Impolite Listening
Politeness is often thought of as the exclusive function of the speaker, as solely an encoding or sending function. But, politeness (or impoliteness) may also be signaled through listening. Of course, there are times when you would not want to listen politely (for example, if someone is being verbally abusive or condescending or using racist or sexist language). In these cases you might want to show your disapproval by showing that you’re not even listening. But most often you’ll want to listen politely and you’ll want to express this politeness through your listening behavior. Here are a few suggestions for demonstrating that you are in fact listening politely. As you read these you’ll notice that these are strategies designed to be supportive of the speaker’s positive and negative face needs.
• Avoid interrupting the speaker. Avoid trying to take over the speaker’s turn. Avoid changing the topic. If you must say something in response to something the speaker said and can’t wait until he or she finishes, then say it as briefly as possible and pass the speaker’s turn back to the speaker.
• Give supportive listening cues. These might include nodding your head, giving minimal verbal responses such as “I see” or “yes, it’s true”, or moving closer to the speaker. Listen in a way that demonstrates that what the speaker is saying is important. In some cultures, polite listening cues must be cues of agreement (Japanese culture is often used as an example); in other cultures, polite listening cues are attentiveness and support rather that cues of agreement (much of United States culture is an example).
• Show empathy with the speaker. Demonstrate that you understand and feel the speaker’s thoughts and feelings by giving responses that show this level of understanding—smiling or frowning or otherwise echoing the feelings of the speaker. If you echo the speaker’s nonverbal expressions, your behavior is likely to be seen as empathic.
• Maintain eye contact. In much of the United States this is perhaps the single most important rule. If you don’t maintain eye contact when someone is talking to you, then you’ll appear to be not listening and definitely not listening politely. This rule, however, does not hold in all cultures. In some Latin and Asian cultures, polite listening would consist of looking down and avoiding direct eye contact when, for example, listening to a superior or much older person.
• Give positive feedback. Throughout the listening encounter and perhaps especially after the speaker’s turn (when you continue the conversation as you respond to what the speaker has said), positive feedback will be seen as polite and negative feedback as impolite. If you must give negative feedback, then do so in a way that does not attack the person’s negative face, for example, first mention areas of agreement or what you liked about what the person said and stress your good intentions. And, most important, do it in private. Public criticism is especially threatening and will surely be seen as a personal attack.
Active and Inactive Listening
One of the most important communication skills you can learn is that of active listening. Consider the following interaction. You’re disappointed that you have to redo your entire report, and you say: “I can’t believe I have to rewrite this entire budget report. I really worked hard on this project and now I have to do it all over again.” To this, you get three different responses:
DANNY: That’s not so bad; most people find they have to redo their first reports. That’s the norm here.
KELLY: You should be pleased that all you have to do is a simple rewrite. Nathan and Joann Nathan both had to completely redo their entire projects.
SUZANNE: You have to rewrite that report you’ve worked on for the last three weeks? You sound really angry and frustrated.
All three listeners are probably trying to make you feel better. But they go about it in very different ways and, you can be sure, with very different results. Danny tries to lessen the significance of the rewrite. This well-intended response is extremely common but does little to promote meaningful communication and understanding. Kelly tries to give the situation a positive spin. Again, this is not much help. Note that with these responses the listeners are also suggesting that you should not be feeling the way you do. They’re implying that your feelings are not legitimate and should be replaced with more logical feelings.
Suzanne’s response, however, is different from the others. Suzanne uses active listening. Active listening owes its development to Thomas Gordon in his Parent Effectiveness Training. Active listening is a process of sending back to the speaker what you as a listener think the speaker meant—both in content and in feelings. Active listening, then, is not merely repeating the speaker’s exact words, but rather putting together your understanding of the speaker’s total message into a meaningful whole.
Active listening helps you as a listener to check your understanding of what the speaker said and, more important, of what he or she meant. Reflecting back perceived meanings to the speaker gives the speaker an opportunity to offer clarification and correct any misunderstandings. Active listening also lets the speaker know that you acknowledge and accept his or her feelings. In the sample responses given, the first two listeners challenged the speaker’s feelings. Suzanne, the active listener, accepted what you were feeling. In addition, she also explicitly identified your feelings: “You sound angry and frustrated,” allowing you an opportunity to correct her interpretation if necessary. At the same time, active listening stimulates the speaker to explore feelings and thoughts. Suzanne’s response encourages you to elaborate on your feelings, and helps you deal with them by talking them through.
A word of caution: In communicating your understanding back to the person, be especially careful to avoid sending “solution messages”—messages that tell the person how he or she should feel or what he or she should do. Four types of messages send solutions, and you’ll want to avoid them in your active listening:
< Ordering messages: “Do this . . . .” “Don’t touch that . . . .”
< Warning and threatening messages: “If you don’t do this, you’ll . . . .” “If you do that, you’ll . . . .”
< Preaching and moralizing messages: “People should all . . . .” “We all have responsibilities . . . .”
< Advising messages: “Why don’t you . . . .” “I think you should . . . .”
Three simple techniques will prove useful as you learn to practice active listening: Paraphrase the speaker’s meaning, express understanding, and ask questions.
• Paraphrase the speaker’s meaning. Stating in your own words what you think the speaker means and feels helps ensure understanding and also shows interest in the speaker. Paraphrasing gives the speaker a chance to extend what was originally said. Thus, when Suzanne echoes your thoughts, you’re given the opportunity to elaborate on why rewriting the budget report means so much to you. In paraphrasing, be objective; be especially careful not to lead the speaker in the direction you think he or she should go. Also, be careful that you don’t overdo paraphrase; only a very small percentage of statements need paraphrasing. Paraphrase when you feel there’s a chance for misunderstanding or when you want to express support for the other person and keep the conversation going.
• Express understanding of the speaker’s feelings. Echo the feelings the speaker expressed or implied (“You must have felt horrible”). This expression of empathy will help you further check your perception of the speaker’s feelings. This will also allow the speaker to see his or her feelings more objectively (especially helpful when these are feelings of anger, hurt, or depression) and to elaborate on them.
• Ask questions. Asking questions ensures your own understanding of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings and secures additional information (“How did you feel when you read your job appraisal report?”). Ask questions to provide just enough stimulation and support for the speaker to feel he or she can elaborate on these thoughts and feelings. These questions will further confirm your interest and concern for the speaker but not pry into unrelated areas or challenge the speaker in any way.


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