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Step One in Effective Communication - Listen

January 18, 2017

Have you ever tried to communicate something that you felt was very important to someone who kept looking at his watch? Or maybe checked her texts while you were speaking? And told you by their actions that they had something more important to do than listen to you?

It takes time to listen. So, if someone asks you if you have time to sit down and talk, don't say "yes" when you really mean "no." If you have something that has to get done right away and you can't put it aside, ask the person if it can wait. If so, schedule the first time you will be able to give him your undivided attention.

But if the matter is clearly urgent, then put your work and your cellphone aside—mentally and physically—and spend the time with the person who needs your help.

It takes time to talk about important matters. The person with the issue might talk around the subject or maybe even try to downplay or trivialize it. While you can help her to feel comfortable, you really can't force her to say something difficult until she feels it's safe to do so. The more serious the subject, the more difficult it is to divulge and the more time-consuming it might be to comprehend.

Leaders in the public sector navigate many stakeholders and must digest a complex landscape. Taking the time to listen well can make the difference between an effective leader and one who misses the mark.

Listening takes effort

Listening also takes effort. Focus on the speaker and fight the natural tendency for the mind to wander off into greener pastures or back to pressing projects. Signal that you are listening with a nod or facial expression, but also ask clarifying questions and paraphrase when necessary.

Listening is more than just hearing what the other person is saying. It means concentrating on the speaker’s body language as well. Words convey facts or information; nonverbal signals convey the speaker's feelings about those facts. If we listen without looking, we're apt to miss a good portion of what the speaker means since meaning is the combination of words and non-words, content and feeling.

Nonverbals include body language like facial expressions, posture, and hand gestures. But they also include clues like rate and pitch of speech and tone of voice. The person might say that she's not concerned, but her rapid speech, high pitch, and tightly-clasped hands say otherwise. Listening is too important to be left up to the ears alone. You also need your eyes. And, of course, your mind.

Listening takes empathy

But perhaps the biggest effort we have to make to listen well is to dispense with stereotypes and withhold our judgement when someone speaks.

Whenever we listen to a statement, particularly one that is charged with emotion, our immediate tendency is to evaluate it from our perspective. That’s natural and human and an impediment to communication if we don't deliberately put on the brakes and control it.

We need to let go of our ego long enough to let the other speak and allow our mind to respond - not just our emotions. Empathy is being able to slip into the other person's shoes without stepping on his toes. Or belittling or crushing her feelings. Empathy lets us identify with someone’s feelings without being taken in by them or taken over by ours.

Ever told a friend about a particularly powerful personal experience only to have her respond with "I know exactly how you feel..." or "That happened to me..." and then proceed to tell you her story without listening to yours?

Stereotypes provide easy short-cuts to quick judgments. They short-circuit thinking by forming opinions without engaging the brain.

Listening without judging allows us to focus on the person and the problem at hand, not the prejudices that accompany the stereotype. It allows us to treat each person as unique, address each situation as it comes up. While it's more cumbersome and time-consuming, it is also a more accurate picture and permits a more appropriate response, instead of an automatic reaction.

To summarize: listening requires time, effort, and empathy. Time to be fully present to hear what the person is saying. Effort that engages our eyes and brain as well as our ears. And, most important, empathy. The ability to drop our agenda and hold our knee-jerk response long enough to hear and feel where that person is coming from.

At this tense, post-election moment, listening might just be the key to restoring civil discourse and lowering the temperature in the room.

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu