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by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, October 2014

EVERYONE wants to be heard. Listening to someone is a gift. Unfortunately, many of us are neither careful nor attentive listeners. Added to that is the stunning truth that we only retain a small percent of what we actually hear. And as far as the quality of listening that we do, we need to ask ourselves, Are we listening to understand the person's point of view?" Or, "Are we listening just to respond?"

There are many variables that impact our listening. Among the long list are: abbreviated time; loud and distracting environments; our internal conversations; preoccupations; attitudes; emotional states; interruptions; fatigue; boredom; wandering minds; cultural differences; language, and beliefs. Also, we can ask ourselves how well we pay attention to the subtle and nuanced information that comes up that is often overlooked but VERY important.

One thing is clear. Each of us can become better listeners by becoming more CONSCIOUS and CONSCIENTIOUS when we listen.

We need to determine if we are ready to listen, to focus and pay attention. We can clear our mind and breathe and be present with this person. Even if we have experienced frustration in previous conversations with this same person, we can instruct ourselves to listen for something new or different.

Most of the time our purpose as a listener is to allow the person who is speaking to be heard, to talk something through, in a trusted and safe environment, not to "fix" the situation. We are there to receive what the person wants/needs to say to us and let them know we are "there" with them. In doing so, we can consider body language and the messages we send nonverbally. Sometimes it is helpful to nod, lean forward, look as if we are listening, even say "mmmm" ("uh huh" etc.), injecting comments when the time is right, and adding a summary to convey that we understand.

Often without knowing it, we give indications that we are not really there. Rolling eyes, sighing in frustration, fidgeting, talking too fast or too loud, checking e-mails, texting, or looking around the room to see who walked in, are among many behaviors which give the impression that we are really not listening. Even if we heard what was said, the impression we give is that the person, or what he or she said, is just not that important. Remember, the interaction is in service to the speaker, not to the listener.

As a listener we can reflect back. We can ask ourselves, "Are we more concerned with 'being heard' and 'giving our own opinion' than listening?" "Do we come to the situation with a pre-set agenda?" Listening is not about being quiet until you have a chance to break in and get your thought across. Nor is it about our need to "impress" the person. We can ask ourselves, "Is it wise/helpful to add something now or shall I wait and ask questions later?" We need to be sure whatever we add is really on point or regards a clarification of what the person is saying and not just about a need that we have.

We can also resist the urge to interrupt or finish someone's sentences. When we interrupt we deny the speaker the chance to fully express what they want to say. So, what can be helpful is to pause before responding.

As a listener, we need to try to be as authentic as possible, also staying away from offering our opinion unless we are asked to give it. Being a trusted listener means staying away from judging the person or what they share with us.

It takes practice and most people appreciate few things more than having someone they can really talk to.

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