19 May 2007

Active Listening and Feedback

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. - Stephen R. Covey, Habit 5 of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People

An important part of communication is active listening.

Listening to another person is not a passive activity, like when you sit and watch television. Rather, it implies some degree of feedback. There are a several levels at which this can happen: acknowledgement of a message, feedback of the strict content, feedback of the underlying message.

Let's start with an example of poor active listening. I was recently telling a person how males of my generation were typically raised to be strong individualists. We were taught not to show weakness. Our fathers were like that, and so were our role models in the movies (think John Wayne). The listener sat there and stared at me. No response, no affirmation, no nodding head, no indication that I had even said anything. It was like talking to the wall, literally.

It was extremely disconcerting to me and I mentioned it. The listener (who should know better) made a defensive response about not having anything to say.

So level 1 of active listening is simple acknowledgement that you have received a message. At very least nod your head. or say "I hear you." or "I saw that too." or "OK." By saying these things you are not agreeing with the speaker, simply affirming that you are present. Anything beats the brick wall approach. Are you actively listening if you do these things? Not necessarily, but these are a minimum requirement to not discourage the speaker.

That take us us to level 2. Listening for meaning and giving content feedback. Very standard ways of doing that are to repeat back verbatim what the speaker said, or better, to paraphrase what the speaker said, being careful not to insert your own issues into it (one of my bad tendencies). So in the above example, the listener could have said something like, "So you're saying that boys in the 60s and 70s were raised as individualists." or "Is that how you were raised?" or "My family was like that too." or "I didn't really see that in my experience."

Level 3 is listening for meaning and giving emotional feedback around the underlying message. In my example, the listener could have gone beyond the words and given feedback along the lines of "It must have been hard to learn to be vulnerable."

Not all communication carries emotional content. Reporting news to someone, e.g., "The movie starts at 7:30 tonight." probably does not carry emotional content with it. Level 2 response is good in those cases--"7:30 tonight. Is that at the Paradiso?"

Avoid Giving Advice or Challenging At This Point
The first order of business is to understand the message being sent. Once you start to formulate your response or counter, you have stopped listening. Even if the speaker is, in your opinion, long-winded, you must stick with them through their communication.

It is ok to question for content. Be careful not to go beyond that and interject your own stuff. So in my example, if my listener had said something like, "So are you using your childhood environment as an excuse for your own sorry behavior?" that would have been an attack reflecting the listener's biases and opinions. Something like "Were your parents like that too?" or "Do you think that was a pervasive attitude?" or "Do you mean physical, intellectual, or emotional weakness?" would all Linkbe reasonable questions to help clarify the content.

Once you really understand the message it will be your turn, but not until you have absolutely heard and understood the basic content and underlying message.

The communication processes that I have laid out may seem overly involved with lots of unnecessary time and effort. Admittedly, it does go beyond what many people do everyday. As you get to know your counterpart better you can bypass some of the feedback steps. Repeating verbatim to someone every time they open their mouth can be really tiring for both of you. The important thing is to use these techniques as needed to ensure that good listening has occurred.

On to Does Free Will Exist >>>>>

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