Are you listening?

January 01, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:23 am IST

It takes a lot more to being a good listener than just nodding one’s head and offering solutions

No doubt, we live in a noisy world, both literally and virtually. Expressing our opinions on all matters, trite or significant, has never been easier. Digital media offers multiple platforms for people to vent their thoughts. But alas, as everyone is busy ‘speaking’, is anyone truly listening? Don’t we all feel slightly compromised when a friend or colleague interrupts a conversation to answer a call?

Whether in a face-to- face conversation or a larger meeting, knowing how to listen can go a long way in smoothing out lines of communication. Even in digital exchanges, we have to master the art of listening to what other people are saying before replying impulsively.

Dos and dont’s

In an article published in The Guardian in November 2017, Moya Sarner writes about the training she underwent to be a volunteer at an organisation that provides support for those who have suicidal thoughts. Prior to the training, Sarner felt that she was a fairly good listener as people routinely confided in her. But only after the training did she realise that many of the things she did were actually antithetical to being a good listener.

The first thing to do when we listen is to do just that. Listen. But many of us instinctively feel we need to add something like, “I understand how that feels” or “My uncle went through something similar...”

According to Sarner, when we interrupt the conversation, we are turning it away from the speaker and putting the spotlight on ourselves. Further, we may feel compelled to give advice if a person is distressed. But a person who is expressing their pain doesn’t need your suggestions right away. They just need to be heard. Our role as a good listener is to be a “calm presence” and for that we have to grow accustomed to pauses in the conversation, writes Sarner.

Author and consultant Caleb Storkey writes in his blog that apart from listening attentively and not answering our phones, a skilled listener employs “positive body language.” Leaning forward with a relaxed expression communicates openness. Making eye contact and nodding intermittently expresses interest. In contrast, fidgeting, locking our arms, turning around or expressing inappropriate shock are likely to dampen the speaker from opening up. Moreover, we need to put aside our preconceived notions if we want to become genuine listeners. Don’t be in a hurry to get a word in. Also, you don’t really need to have the last word.

We can extend these “listening skills” to digital exchanges as well. Very often, people in a WhatsApp group may react instinctively to a message and start tapping away even before processing what other people have said. And, this can result in miscommunication and misunderstandings. In order to curb your reactive instincts, pause and reread every message and your responses too, before pressing ‘Post’ or ‘Send’. Considerate listeners also mirror what the speaker says in their own words to ensure they have understood the intent of the speaker. If not, the speaker has a chance to clarify their position.

Finally, Caleb Storkey also mentions that good listeners are trustworthy. When an exchange is confidential, the listener respects the fact that sensitive information is not to be divulged.

The immense impact of being heard is captured by the late American psychiatrist Karl Menniger’s words: “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold, and expand.”

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

...when we interrupt the conversation, we are turning it away from the speaker and putting the spotlight on ourselves.

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