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The Art of Listening

posted Sep 9, 2012, 11:25 AM by Anna Hemmendinger

How many times have you told someone something of deep, personal significance only to hear them tell you THEIR own story or change the subject entirely? How well did you feel heard when this happened? Listening is an art that can be refined through practice. A few are born with it; the rest of us can benefit from consciously practicing it. The following are eight common listening styles. Most people would not feel heard by respondents who use the first four styles. The last four styles promote good communication.

Here’s what conversations in each of the eight modes would sound like after the initial conversation which begins like this:

Ginny walks into the kitchen where George is preparing supper, and tells him, “George, you won’t believe what happened to me at work today. Harvey went to the boss and said that I have been falsifying the inventory sheets for our section. I can’t believe he did this, but I think he heard I’d gotten a raise for good service.”

Possible Responses
  1. Ignorer shows no indication of hearing the other person, with body gestures or words, might even walk away. George gets himself a drink and walks into the other room, without saying a word, and turns on the television.
  2. Distracter distracts; entirely changes subject. George replies, “Conrad called today to say that the he will be able to fix the garage door tomorrow.”
  3. One Upper one ups the conversation “well you should hear what happened when….!” and the conversation becomes about the respondent, not the teller. George replies, “I remember this guy at work who thought his wife was cheating on him, so he started spreading rumours about her at her workplace and tried to get her fired.”
  4. Fixer instructs the teller how to fix the problem, whether or not requested to do so. George replies, “Well you know what you should do, you give that guy a piece of your mind and then go straight to the union rep, and then to the boss, and get our lawyer on the line right now.”
  5. Reflective Listener Paraphrases what the other person has just said, giving the other person full attention, and checking out what that person is really feeling. George, turns to Ginny, stops what he’s doing, and then replies, “Wow honey, that’s awful. You mean he went straight to your boss and just out and out told him you’d been cheating on the company? Do you think he’s jealous because you got a raise? You look devastated, are you?”
  6. Empathetic Listener Just listens, and indicates with body gestures and words that he empathizes with the other person, without trying to fix it. George stops what he’s doing and gives Ginny his full attention. He then replies, “Wow, honey, that’s awful. Pause….what do you need from me right now?. just to listen, to give you hug, to problem solve? That’s just awful!”.
  7. Problem Solver explores how to resolve problem, with permission. George replies, “Wow, honey that’s awful! Do you want me to help you figure out what to do next? What do you think your options are? (Listens, and then adds to what Ginny says, saying) First of all, you could go directly to the manager and ask for an exact explanation of what really has transpired, and find out what your rights are in the company. Next, you could go to human resources. You might want to contact the union rep, and even our lawyer. Is this helpful?”
  8. Empathetic Matcher listens thoughtfully, acknowledges hearing story. Then replies by first asking if it would be helpful to tell about a personal experience that might be relevant, and only proceeding with permission. George replies, “Wow, honey that’s awful. (Pauses to take in what Ginny has just said.) Honey, you know, that reminds me of something that happened a few years ago in our workplace. Do you want to hear about it? What worked for my co-worker in that situation, which sounds like it was pretty similar, was that the first thing he asked for was a record of where the falsification had taken place. Then he printed out his reports, and asked for a meeting with the boss and human resources person. Finally, he went to his union rep, and eventually called a lawyer. In the end, it turned out his colleague was just jealous, and there were no grounds for the false complaint. The colleague ended up getting fired.”

In the first three styles above, there is no indication that the listener is paying attention to what has been said by Ginny. In the fourth style, he seems to have heard what was said, but is immediately launched into a “fix it’ mode, without checking out what she needs at that moment.

Each of the last four styles are positive options of responses, which give feedback to Ginny that he has heard what she said, that he is registering an appropriate sympathy, and he’s checking out what she might need from him next.

In our communication with people, especially when they are upset, we often forget that they may be coming to tell us about something which they just want to unload, without advice in return. If we are practicing the best “art of listeninng”, we check out with the other person what they are looking for in return, before proceeding.

So when Ginny comes in the door, and unloads her problem, George might immediately stop what he is doing, face her and listen. Before replying, he might pause to take it in, and then make an empathetic comment, like “wow, that’s awful.” As a follow up, he might say, “honey what do you need from me right now? Do you want me to just listen, to tell you what I’ve heard or to problem solve with you?” In this way, the focus stays on Ginny and meeting her needs in this communication.
Sometimes, all we want to do is simply tell our story and have someone listen. Other times, we want concrete help. But if the other person launches into fixing something we don’t want fixed, then that becomes unhelpful communication.

When we practice the art of good listening, real communication takes place because someone else has entirely taken us in without judgment, but instead, with compassion, openess, and attention to what we need in that moment.

~ Anna
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