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Listening is an important element in the process of communication. Communication is basically about sending and receiving information. The most basic thing in communicating is ensuring the right message is received exactly as intended.
Both sender and receiver have to take proactive measures to ensure they send and receive the right messages. People use different media to communicate.
However, whether on the telephone or any other media, I am personally convinced that listening is necessary for any two people to understand each other.
This is a reflective paper in which I am going to share views on the importance of listening in communication, barriers to listening, and strategies of perfecting listening skills.
Importance of Listening
Many mistakes happen in individual’s lives just because they did not listen effectively. When it comes to business, getting exactly what the client, customer or supervisor is saying is very poignant. It is only through listening and getting the information right that one can respond appropriately.
Relationships are built on reciprocity in communication. A true interpersonal relationship is one in which people react and respond to each other appropriately.
Therefore, listening is important in personal communication, for success at work and in building interpersonal relationships (Battell, 2006, p. 2).
Language use could be very intriguing if one took the time to think about words and their usage. I realize that due to equivocal qualities of given words; one can say one thing and mean completely a different thing.
Unless the context of words is well understood, words can seriously affect communication. Apart from equivocal words, there are words with similar sounds, e.g., cap and cab. I had a cousin who had many fights with his dad due to mishearing the words used.
Uncle would send him for the gardener, and my cousin would come back with a kitten. The issue was not with his ears; my cousin was just hyperactive and never listened enough.
Due to not listening keenly, he would often respond wrongly, and people around him interpreted it for mischief. However, he was a simple obedient boy who just had too many things going at every one given time.
Good interpersonal relationships are built on effective listening to each other. Sometimes, a relationship can go on for years simply because one of the parties is a good listener. The moment he or she also chooses to give up on listening, such relationships end.
I once had a very close friend. We did many things together and enjoyed each other’s company. We never argued much, but on the few occasions we would disagree, she would say to me “the only problem is that you never listen.”
To this, I would retort with more angry words to the effect that I listen but cannot entertain crap in the name of listening. This friendship died years back but going through literature on listening; I have learned a lot that would have made my time with the friend even more awesome.
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I realize that most arguments between us resulted from lack of effective listening on my part. My friend was somehow submissive, and I now notice that the relationship worked only as long as she was submissive and took in all my crap.
I never listened to her seriously because whenever she would raise a concern, I always had a hand-offish response ready. Therefore, we were in a friendship but, in essence, I did not relate to her. I simply never gave a chance to her perspective.
I was always the one with plans, and she only followed and supported me. This kind of arrangement fed my ego and made me feel like the controller of sorts.
Having learned from the described cases, I realize how critical listening is in families, marriages and at the workplace. Listening to each other at the workplace is crucial for several reasons. The people we meet at the workplace come from very different backgrounds.
Their way of self-expression or generally how they speak may be somehow different from what we are used to. Organizations are about customer delight to make profits.
Customer delight is built on internal synergy in the organization. Internal synergy is only achieved through good communication among employees. Successful companies know how to rally their employees into powerful teams that deliver on organizational objectives.
At the heart of any effort at rallying people is persuasion. Persuasion requires recognition of specific needs that information should address. For managers to understand employees under them, they have to learn to listen (Adair, 2009, p. 158).
Some employees may be good at technical work but very poor when it comes to self-expression; only patient listening can help such employees to tell exactly what they want or need.
Through active listening to employees, managers can create programs that optimize the usage of human resource in the organization.
Apart from internal synergy, successful organizations are those that manage to form lasting relations with customers, suppliers and other partners (Adair, 2009, p. 211). Once again, to connect with a customer, one has to identify the real need of the customer.
I once witnessed a very amusing case in a certain customer care center. I entered the care center, and one customer care agent was in a heated engagement with an enraged customer. Realizing, he was not going to find the help he needed; the customer made to leave.
But then some other customer agent motioned to the customer to go to his desk. After a few minutes, I overheard the customer saying “that is all that I wanted,” and he was smiling. I also smiled knowing too well what had happened.
In my opinion, the first customer care agent did not listen to the customer and did not identify where the problem was. If the customer had gone with the unresolved problem, most likely he would have switched product providers or badmouthed the company.
Barriers to Effective Listening
There are two major categories of barriers to effective listening, i.e., an individual’s disposition and distractions in the external environment (Brown, 2010). While writing about effective listening, I thought seriously about my interaction with friends.
I notice that some of my friends are better listeners than others. I also notice that in some instances I have been a better listener than others. Thinking about it all, I tend to think that personal insecurities are the biggest inhibitor to effective listening.
In most cases, we argue with our friends because we want to prove that our point of view is right (Brown, 2010). On their part, they also argue vehemently, because they want to prove that their point of view is right.
On close inspection, it is clear that arguments are often not about the rightness of view per se but something to do with me as a person is right.
Given an individual’s we are often too keen on being right, we focus on what we are saying to others and forget completely about what others are saying to us.
It is very interesting to be a bystander in a heated debate. In often cases, the heat is not about the rightness of views or ideas but the people themselves; they desire to appear superior or more right in themselves.
The second barrier to effective listening is distractions. In the world of today, people want to do a hundred things at the same time.
They are sharing serious issues with a friend while at the same time they are fully concentrated on a computer game or busy chatting on facebook or some other social network. Multitasking is a good skill, but it has to be managed properly.
The environment matters a lot when it comes to listening. If two people have to talk seriously, a noisy environment will bar proper communication.
Strategies for Effective Listening
There are two major barriers to effective listening i.e. a person’s disposition and distractions in the external environment; therefore, strategies employed for effective listening have to address both.
Secondly, although it is often assumed that only the receiver should listen, effective listening should be mutual between sender and receiver.
People’s attitude or disposition matters a lot when it comes to how they interact with others (Battell, 2006, p. 3). As indicated, personal insecurities and desire to win arguments often make individuals focus on what they are saying and forget what the other party is saying.
In actual sense, even before someone completes explaining what he or she is saying, the other will already be busy formulating his or her next line of attack. In arguments with friends, I have often found myself very frustrated.
And in some other cases, after a real heated argument, I find myself laughing when it is all over. Post-argument analysis often reveals that each of us had his or her position. We both tried to help each other see a point and how right it is.
Along the way, there was excruciating evidence showing that either all positions are right or one is more right than the other, but we all hold our ground because of deep-seated desire to be the right one; to win.
From the communication literature, I have read, it is clear that interpersonal interactions should not be about winning and losing. Rather, they are opportunities for mutual improvement through learning from one another.
Even in situations when one is outrightly wrong, and the other is outrightly right, the one with the right perspective should be able to learn from the wrongness of the other (Cohen, 2002, p. 96).
Communication should be about persuading others while at the same time giving them a chance to persuade you. Therefore, the right disposition should be assertiveness and humility as opposed to aggressiveness or boisterousness.
This approach to communication is well illustrated in the process of bargaining in business. There are people who approach negotiating or bargaining in business as aggressors while others approach the process as consensus seekers (Cohen, 2002, p. 84).
The two approaches merit in given situations. However, cohesive seeking negotiations or bargaining helps build more long term relationships.
A cohesive approach means that both parties state their terms and they amicably, on a win-win basis, seek the position that is mutually satisfying. Whenever any party adopts a defensive position, the chances of listening to each other become compromised.
Effective listening requires that the parties be interested in what the other is saying. When something is interesting, e.g., when an interesting soap opera is on air, we normally switch off everything else to concentrate.
Therefore, if we are truly interested in what others have to say to us, we have to switch off everything else and focus. By doing this, we are more likely to hear exactly what they have to say to us and even note how they say it. Concentration is a very important element in listening.
The purpose of listening is to get what the other means; as he or she says it. This can only be achieved through proper preparation to concentrate and listen.
Preparation to listen to starts with choosing the right place and time. This means that for every kind of communication, parties have to know the right where and when.
Choosing to tell someone something very important in a crowded place and expecting the other person to listen is counter-productive. The place has to warranty the possibility of capturing the full attention of the receiver.
The listener has also to know where there are too many distractions and either move away or choose another time when he or she can listen without interference.
When in an interaction, good listening requires that we digest the information from others. Digesting or evaluating takes time; thus one needs to refrain from quick responses or gut reactions to whatsoever others say (Wilson, 1998, p. 17).
However, as we listen and digest, it is advised that we show how alert we are; none verbally. One classic way that people use to show that they are listening is to nod their head or maintain eye contact.
The easiest way to know someone is not listening is by noting nonverbal clues, e.g., playing with things, shifting in the chair uncomfortably or not maintaining eye contact (Wilson, 1998, p. 17).
Secondly, a speaker can know when one is not listening from how fast he or she interjects or cuts others off. Interrupting what others are saying is a sure way of telling them that what they are saying is not of interest.
If it is very necessary that one has to interject, he or she has to explain why he or she is interrupting. Listening requires that once in a while we interrupt the speaker for clarification, to note something, to offer some additional information or to beg for more details (Wilson, 1998, p. 32).
One way of interjecting politely is by first illustrating that what the speaker has just said is clear. Therefore, paraphrasing helps the other to know that you are keenly following everything.
A polite question is also an acceptable way of interrupting a speaker. Great conservationists are good at asking questions. I tried this trick on my friends, and it works just fine.
When I do not have much to say to friends, I realized, the best way to having a great conversation is by asking them about issues that are of real interest.
In interpersonal interactions, individuals are always eager to get their views and arguments out; they seek to be understood. What many of us do not realize is that others can only understand us if we are also keen on understanding them.
To understand others, i.e., what they mean to say, we have to listen to them. Listening is an art that is developed with practice. The first step to listening is appreciating that what others are saying to us is of value.
Showing interest or being interested and encouraging others to say what they want to say is critical to understanding them.
From my observations, I realize that when we show interest and understanding to others, they are more likely to reciprocate by also showing interest or trying to understand what we say to them. Therefore, in whatsoever context, listening is pivotal for any meaningful interpersonal interaction.
Adair, J. (2009). Effective Communication: The Most Important Management Skill of All Sydney: Pan Macmillan.
Battell, C. (2006). Effective Listening. Chicago: ASTD Press.
Brown, J. (2010). Ten Obstacles to Empathic Communication. Center for Non-Violent Communication. Web.
Cohen, S. (2002). Negotiating Skills for Managers. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.
Wilson, D. (1998). Listening Skills. Illinois: Mark Twain Media Publishing Inc.