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May 2024
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Are You Listening?

Active listening is not about you; it's about the other person.

By Peggy Beach, DTM

Listening seems to be a dying art. Modern society is fast-paced and noisy, with television, podcasts, web series, and more all competing for our attention. Our society is so fast-paced that according to a Microsoft study, the average attention span of people has declined from 12 seconds to 8 seconds since the year 2000.

“We live in a society that values aggressive personal marketing. To be silent is to fall behind,” says Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters.

Yet active listening is a more important skill than ever. What exactly is active listening? It’s different than merely “hearing” words that are spoken—essentially a passive process. As noted in the “Active Listening” project in the Toastmasters Pathways learning experience, “Listening occurs when you take what you hear and extract meaning. Active listening is the process of understanding and repeating what you have heard.”

Active listening isn’t always easy, but the rewards are great. Murphy points out that listening plugs us into life. It gives us a richer social life, makes us less lonely and more fulfilled. Instead of getting our information or forming opinions based on tweets, posts, and texts, it’s crucial to hold a thoughtful two-way conversation to truly understand another person and their point of view.

“Listening well can help you understand other people’s attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you’d be better off avoiding,” Murphy wrote in a New York Times editorial this year.

Whether in a conversation or a club audience, use the touchstones of good listening. Among tips in the “Active Listening” project:

  • Give the speaker your full attention; remain relaxed and engaged
  • Respect the speaker’s point of view
  • Reserve judgment
  • Avoid interrupting
  • Give nonverbal cues to show your interest

In online settings, where a speaker isn’t physically in front of you, it can be even more challenging to listen attentively, but it’s equally important. The same qualities that apply to in-person listening apply to listening in a virtual setting.

The Connection to Speaking

Being a good listener also makes you a better speaker. That’s one reason evaluations are so central to the Toastmasters experience. To give truly helpful feedback to a speaker, you must listen carefully, absorbing all the details. Such close observation helps drive what works in a presentation and what doesn’t. You benefit from those insights each time you speak. And honing your listening skills through evaluations contributes to critical-thinking abilities that pay off in other settings too, like your home or workplace.

Many times people aren't looking for solutions, rather they simply want someone to acknowledge their situation.

In fact, the strong relationship between public speaking and listening has long been studied by researchers. The late Dr. Ralph G. Nichols, known as the “father of listening,” noticed the relationship while teaching debate at the University of Minnesota. His best debate students, he noted, were the ones who listened to their opponents. “The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them,” said Nichols, who founded the International Listening Association in 1979. In the early years of Toastmasters, the motto was “For Better Listening, Thinking, Speaking,” with listening being the first skill in the list.

Listening is such an important skill to cultivate that District officers received training in active listening at the 2020 Mid-year Training sessions. They focused on the four common areas of difficulty in listening:

  1. Thinking three to four times faster than people speak
  2. Listening with the intent to respond rather than to understand
  3. Wanting to give advice
  4. Understanding cultural barriers

Pipat Puengmongkolchaikij, DTM, District 97 (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam) Director, finds the second area of difficulty to be especially hard. He admits he often wants to respond quickly when listening. “My biggest obstacle is that I tend to think of the answer very quickly even when I am listening,” he says. “It distracts me. Sometimes I lose my focus because of this habit. I need to stop jumping to conclusions too quickly and allow myself to fully understand the speakers more.”

Ways to Become a Better Listener

Fortunately, listening is a skill that can be developed. By focusing your attention on the person who is speaking and understanding the subtext in what is/isn’t being said, you can train your ears and become a better communicator.

1Minimize distractions.

To truly listen, cultivate the right environment. When someone is talking, whether at a meeting or in conversation, always set aside the cellphone, laptop, tablet, and other devices.

Tiffany Shlain, author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, advocates regular electronic downtime. She encourages people to establish guidelines for when and where screens can be used (like no phones on the table during meals) and to consider using a paper scheduler instead of a phone. She also recommends using a feature on your smartphone that sets limits on screen time or social media use.

Putting down your devices and spending time offline allows you to focus more carefully on friends and family—and gives you more time to listen to their stories.

2Don’t interrupt, but do ask questions—open-ended questions.

Ana Isabel Lage Ferreira, Past District 107 (Spain and Portugal) Director, believes that good listeners are curious about people. A key to listening, she says, is to not interrupt the other person. “You need to be quiet and pay full attention to the other person,” she says. “When others are talking, and especially if the conversation is interesting, it is too tempting to interrupt and start mentioning your own experience, ideas, or episodes.” She adds, “You will become a much better listener and a better communicator if you can resist that temptation.”

Woman with hands clasped listening to man speak

Rather than waiting for someone to finish and then jumping in to share your story, try asking open-ended questions before giving advice. Questions like “And what happened after that?” or “What did it feel like when that happened?” encourage the speaker to give more information and tell more of their story.

Wanting to help others is a common human trait. And while often this is a good thing, it’s also important to simply listen to what the other person is saying. Many times people aren’t looking for solutions, rather they simply want someone to acknowledge their situation.

Listening is not about you. It is about the other person.

3Don’t be afraid of silence and be aware of cultural differences.

Often when there is silence, it’s tempting to jump in and say something. Resist that temptation. Develop a tolerance for silence. This is hard in many countries, particularly in Western cultures, where people may interpret silence as disapproval. Many Asian cultures are more comfortable with silences, and Western businesspeople are often at a disadvantage in countries where silent contemplation is more valued.

Puengmongkolchaikij, a native of Thailand, said that Thai people don’t interrupt speakers because of the “Kreng Jai” culture. “In Thailand, it is the culture to spare people’s feelings,” he says. “Thai people are good listeners because we don’t listen for things to interrupt or to argue. We just listen quietly. A lot of times I asked the person I talked with to tell me when he or she had to leave, because they wouldn’t dare to interrupt even if they were going to be late for a meeting already.”

Often when there is silence, you want to jump in and say something. Resist that temptation. Develop a tolerance for silence.

Communication barriers can happen even between people from the same country who speak the same language but are in different life situations, such as people who have a job and people who don’t work, people with children and people without. A common language challenge often happens between people working in different professions. For instance, people working in medical, technical, and financial fields frequently use terms and acronyms that people outside their field don’t recognize. Whether you’re listening to someone from a different culture, a different generation, or a different industry, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions and encourage others to expand upon their experiences.

Cultural differences actually open up opportunities for listening. Ferreira once led a team of Toastmasters from diverse backgrounds. “My team had people from The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, England, and Greece,” she says. “Teams are naturally diverse, and this cultural diversity also taught me that the more you listen, the more you learn and the better your decisions ultimately will be.”

Toastmasters Can Help with Listening

The Toastmasters experience is designed to help members become better listeners. “The need to give useful feedback to the speakers helped me develop this ability to follow a speech to the end and not to wander in my own thoughts when others are speaking,” says Ferreira.

Use the experience of being an evaluator to cultivate your listening skills. Evaluators must focus intensely, organize their thoughts, and then articulate their response. When you’re having a conversation, pay attention to how you are responding. Are you giving the other person your full attention, paying attention to what they’re saying and not just preparing your response? Being an effective listener is an important part of being a strong communicator. As Dr. Ralph C. Smedley said, “Real communication is impossible without listening.”

Editor’s Note: “Active Listening” is a Level 3 elective project in eight paths in the Pathways learning experience.

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