Emphasis on effective listening is not new, but until recently more emphasis had been placed on the ability and willingness to speak freely than on effective listening. Today, however, some schools teach listening skills along with the three Rs. Corporations are encouraging employees to avail themselves of certain courses to improve their listening skills. Family counselors are emphasizing the importance of how to listen within the family circle. Following are some techniques suggested by a collection of experts to help you and your mate enhance your listening abilities.
Be alert to body language. We communicate by the spoken word, but we also communicate by what we do not say. Fifty-five percent of what we communicate is expressed through facial expressions—a pout, a sigh, a grimace, or a squint of the eyes. Such body language speaks louder than words. Other nonverbal messages are caught through body postures or gestures—a nervous tapping of the foot, tightly clenched teeth, or a motion of irritation. Such behavior patterns offer keys to feelings behind the words and set up barriers before conversation begins.
The door opener. A good listening technique is found in responding with a “door opener” or the invitation to say more. These responses do not communicate nay of your own ideas or feelings, yet they invite your mate to share his thoughts. Some of the simplest “door-openers” are: “I see.” “You don’t say.” “Tell me more.” “I’d be interested in your point of view.” “Tell me the whole story.” In this way you encourage the other person to talk and do not give the idea that you can hardly wait to snatch the conversation away. They convey respect by implying: “I might learn something from you. Your ideas are important to me. I am interested in what you have to say.”
Active listening. “Deliberate listening” is the ability to process information, analyze it, recall it at a later time, and draw conclusions from it, but “active listening” hears the feelings of the speaker first and processes information secondarily. Both deliberate and active listening skills are necessary in effective communication, but listening with feeling is far more important in marriage.
Active listening is particularly useful when you sense your mate has a problem-anger, resentment, loneliness, discouragement, frustration, hurt. Your first reaction to such feelings may be negative. You may want to argue, defend yourself, withdraw, or fight back. But in active listening you catch what has been said and then restate what you think the feeling is, not the facts of what has been said.
Carl: “Len Bradford, the new administrator, really gets my goat. He picks on the smallest things. He’s always on my back. I don’t know how much more I can take.”
Helen, using active listening, says, “You mean Len Bradford is a very difficult person to work with,” or “it’s very difficult to work with someone who nit-picks.” These responses allow Carl to feel that she understands the difficulty he faces at work. He has needed someone he could open up to about this problem, and now he feels free to express the full story. Helen listens with appropriate variations of active listening mixed with door openers and so provides the sounding board Carl needs. Sometimes it is necessary to prod gently to uncover the true emotion behind the words. When you think you understand, you then say it back, checking for any misunderstanding.
When Jan says, “I’m so tired I could die,” Jack could say, “Stop talking about being tired and take some Geritol.” Or, “You always get tired this time of night when you think I might want more than a good-night kiss.” But with active listening Jack would say, “You’re really bushed, huh? Any special reason?” this now opens the door for Jan to seek understanding from her husband concerning certain problems she has had with the children, a run-in with a neighbor, or worries over her mother’s duties. It is easier for her to say more, go deeper into her problem, and develop her thoughts further. Caution: Once the private feelings are exposed, however, you must restrain the urge to give advice, criticize, blame, or make judgments. This is not the time for that.