The vanishing art of listening well

By Cynthia Clark | 01/24/2017

Four tips for becoming a better listener.

Woman with hand to ear
For many, the beginning of another year brings a sense of renewal, optimism, and promise, along with the time-honored tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. For decades, I have made two resolutions each year—one personal and one professional. To help me achieve my resolutions (by staying focused, inspired, and motivated), I like to keep them brief, concise, and simply stated.

Cynthia ClarkFor example, my professional resolution for 2017 is Build goodwill. For me, it means I resolve to: 1) Demonstrate civility, 2) model mindful regard, and 3) share relevant, timely, and significant contributions that add value and meaning to the lives of others. It includes being a catalyst for positive change, fostering productive work environments, and making a meaningful difference. My personal resolution for 2017 is Listen well. While both resolutions are important, connected, and intertwined, this blog post focuses on the latter—listening well.

My work as a consultant involves interacting with people in many interesting places, which means I spend a good deal of time in airports. This gives me ample opportunity to observe my surroundings and engage in a fair amount of people watching. Unfortunately, I often observe a lack of interaction between and among people, even in families with small children. Frequently, each member is absorbed in his or her personal electronic device, paying little attention to one another, much less engaging in meaningful conversation. In a practice-based discipline such as nursing, which requires presence, attention, and active listening, it is concerning that basic communication skills may be eroding from our daily lives.

Apart from passively absorbing one-way, often media-based, input, if we are not conversing, we are not listening. As Margaret J. Wheatley quips, “Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit and listen.” I sincerely believe that truly listening, really paying attention, and genuinely valuing what a person has to say is one of the most exquisite gifts we can give—and, when we are the beneficiaries of such a gift, receive.

So, what does it mean to truly listen, and what skills might we hone to help us listen well?                                                                                   

Be present and engaged
Listening well takes practice, time, and patience. It involves listening with all senses, giving full attention to the speaker, and being engaged in the experience. We need to relax, concentrate, and put distractions aside. It is important to unplug from whatever device we are using at the moment, put other thoughts out of our mind, and pay close attention to the speaker’s words, body language, voice tone, and nonverbal behaviors. It is helpful to make eye contact, ask clarifying questions, avoid interruptions, and seek to understand the speaker’s point of view. As Stephen R. Covey noted, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

In other words, we cannot mentally rehearse a response and actively listen at the same time. To avoid the temptation to reply, imagine that you will be tested on what you have heard and understood. Good listeners avoid interrupting or interjecting their own opinions or ideas while the speaker is still talking. Listening well and with respect is more difficult when we disagree with someone or when we are in a conflicted situation. In either case, keep an open mind and seek to understand.

Keep an open mind and seek to understand
Whether you agree or disagree with the person speaking, remember, what they are saying is important and true for them. As a young therapist, I was encouraged to implement Miller’s Law, a communication technique designed to better understand another person’s position or point of view by suspending judgment and assuming that what the speaker says is true. Why? Because the speaker believes it’s true. This doesn’t mean we blindly agree with what is being said. No, Miller’s Law is simply a way to listen for understanding and to make sense of the speaker’s “truth,” to help one understand where the speaker is coming from and why.

Empathize and clarify
Empathic listening means listening with respect and intention and for the purpose of understanding rather than gathering momentum to build one’s own case. The goal is to more accurately understand the speaker’s point of view by putting one’s self in his or her position. Empathic listening builds trust and respect, encourages honest communication, and creates a safe environment for problem-solving. It’s important to pay attention to the message, the way it’s delivered, and the speaker’s body language.

We need to listen not only to what is being said, but to what is left unsaid or only partially stated. We must be observant of nonverbal cues, body language, and inconsistencies between the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal messages. It’s important to seek clarification by asking relevant questions and offering a summary of what we’ve heard to show that we’ve been listening and to confirm our understanding.

Listen to learn
Radio host Celeste Headlee suggests that one of the most effective conversation techniques is to “be prepared to be amazed” by what the speaker has to say. Too often, we stop talking to people who express views different from our own, or we speak only to people who share similar beliefs and opinions. Through this discriminating lens, we cease to question our perspectives or expand our worldview.

What if we viewed conversations as learning opportunities? By being curious and inquisitive, we might discover or learn something new. At the very least, we increase our potential for seeing things differently. Listening to learn means refraining from offering solutions or giving unsolicited advice. In many cases, the speaker simply wishes to vent or share an experience without being judged or critiqued. If you feel the irresistible urge to offer a solution, ask for permission first, by saying something such as, “I may not have the answer, but if you’d like, I can help you find a solution that’s right for you.”

When people feel listened to, they feel more comfortable and want to make a connection. Conversely, when they don’t feel listened to, they often send a message of disinterest in the topic and the relationship. As with most things in life, it comes back to the “golden rule,” being the kind of listener you want others to be when you are speaking.

Perhaps you have already established goals for the new year. If not, consider setting at least one worthy goal and resolve to achieve it. In the words of Stephen King, “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” 

I wish all of you an extraordinary, fulfilling, and memorable 2017. Happy New Year!

Editor’s note: Cynthia Clark will be presenting at the Creating Healthy Work Environments conference, slated for 17-19 March 2017 at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. The theme of the conference is “Building a Healthy Workplace: Best Practices in Clinical and Academic Settings,” and Clark’s Plenary 1 presentation is titled “Creating Healthy Work Environments: Powered by Civility, Leadership, and Ethical Practice.” The early registration deadline is 25 January! To learn more and to register.

Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, strategic nursing advisor for ATI Nursing Education, professor emeritus, founder of Civility Matters, and author of Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education, is a behavioral nurse-therapist and an expert in fostering civility and healthy work environments. Click here to access Blogger-resident entries posted before 2017 in Clark’s blog, “Musing of the great blue.”

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