2017, November 2
It is the political tension we are lately witnessing which might have led me to write the following lines. After all, the incessant barrage of news and the constant calls for mediation and dialogue constantly remind me how important it is to know how to listen.
We, as human beings, have the capacity to communicate by using a very complex system of signs and rules (as long as both parts of the communicative process share the same code). However, and whereas the only thing the sender needs to convey information is to utter the message, the receiver needs a lot more to decode what is being communicated. This capacity to successfully manage information is the ultimate key to communication and its responsibility rests upon the person who is listening. Therefore, the receiver must make use of the so-called active listening.
As you can imagine, today’s information overload - in a world where we give less and less importance to conversation - makes it difficult to differentiate what is superficial from what is not. The benefits of listening actively are therefore boundless. In our job, this can be applied either when negotiating with our clients or when working shoulder to shoulder with the members of our own company. Active listening must always have an essential role.
Active listening is a combination of attitudes, of mental and physiological processes and of techniques that allow us to fully understand what is being said. All our senses are nonetheless important when listening. In fact, more than half of the information we receive is processed through visual perception: gestures, postures, movements, facial or hand expressions make more than 50% of the information conveyed in a conversation. This explains why it is so important to pay full attention during the communicative process and why interpersonal contact is the best channel for understanding, whereas tools such as email or phone (though useful) may cause countless misunderstandings.
I could list diverse techniques associated with active listening or some of the obstacles that we need to take into account for a successful conversation. Holding an unhurried conversation, reformulating our interlocutors when speaking - so that they know we are getting the message - or not interrupting during a conversation are some useful resources. However, I would like to exclusively focus on the essential part of the listening process and which is closely related to people’s emotions, both the sender’s and the receiver’s.
In order to listen actively we need to put ourselves in the speaker’s place, that is, have empathy. We will not be able to decode the message correctly if we do not have the speaker’s emotions, needs and longings into consideration. We should be able to get rid of our prejudices and of the temptation to give advice if we take for granted that our perspective is necessarily the right one. It is also necessary to disengage from our anxieties or personal needs. By doing so, we will get to be fully focused on understanding our interlocutor. The focus must therefore be on the person speaking and what they are trying to communicate, but also on their breathing, their look, their pauses, their movements, etc. Only if we are totally concentrated we will fully understand the message.
Active listening forces us to humanize our interlocutor and identify ourselves with them if we want to understand each other correctly. I believe this is a very interesting part of the communicative process, since it turns it into more than a mere process. Through personal training to take other people’s emotions into account, human beings tend to generate knowledge and grow to a personal level.
I would like to think that all human beings are capable of understanding these techniques. The hardest part would be to know how to put them into practice. To start with, it is as easy as googling ‘active listening’. Nonetheless, it is important to take into account that learning how to listen actively requires a lot of practice and is not easy whatsoever. Among other things, it means changing many personal habits in communication, learning how to adapt oneself and, above all, knowing oneself. The reward is immense though; it entails a great changing and personal growth and a better understanding with the rest.
Unfortunately (let me come back to the starting point of the text), I have the feeling that the effort that entails an exercise of such type is too laborious for many people. If that is so is because they might not be at the height of their responsibilities. Therefore, I would like to remind them that, as most business schools they have most probably attended preach: ‘what makes a true leader is basically to know how to listen’.
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