"The problem with communication," author George Bernard Shaw once said, "is the illusion that it has occurred." It's an illusion common to many of us: we leave a meeting or a presentation sure that we know exactly what transpired, what was analyzed or examined, what conclusions or actions were suggested or selected. But later we discover that we didn't really understand.
Sometimes that's because we didn't listen very well. Listening is a skill, one that goes beyond hearing words to making sense of the messages they are intended to carry. It's an active process, and participating in it fully is one way to slash the veil of illusion that so often complicates communication.
We can listen at about twice the speed of speech. So as someone is speaking, our minds race ahead and, unless we are focused on the speaker, are prone to wander.
To listen, we must actively engage our minds in what we hear. We must attend to the language we hear in order to give it meaning. Otherwise, it's just ignored noise.
Listening with an open mind invites engagement. If you're focused on your own viewpoint, incoming ideas and perspectives will be blocked. If you're defensive, you may miss critical information. If you're formulating your response while someone is speaking, you cannot listen to what he or she is saying.
Instead, make meaning. Paraphrase the speaker's messages. Note points and how they are explained or supported. Review them. Actively build your understanding.
Holding eye focus with a speaker helps you stay engaged. It also allows you to watch for body language or facial expressions that can help you make meaning of the words you are processing.
Be aware of your own body language, too. In a Q&A session, for example, keeping your face and body neutral helps you listen more intently. That neutrality also signals the speaker that you are indeed willing to receive the message being sent.
In a conversation, leaning toward the speaker or nodding confirms that you listening. An occasional "yes" or "uh-huh" does the same and encourages the speaker to continue. A smile of appreciation or a frown of puzzlement indicates your engagement and level of understanding.
Although you may know the overall purpose of a particular meeting, presentation, or conversation, continue to define the speaker's purpose as you listen. Purposes change; the speaker may explain in one part of a presentation and persuade in another. Follow the shifts so that the purposes you perceive help you build and comprehend meaning.
Cultivating a sensitivity to the speaker's vocal style can also make you a better listener. Notice when the speaker slows his rate of speech—that may be a signal that a new concept or complex idea is being introduced. Whether he speaks calmly or excitedly, solemnly or teasingly, use his tone to inform your understanding. They are a part of his message.
Be aware, too, that listening is sometimes just as selective as hearing. Our interests and needs may not only direct what we hear but what we make of what we hear. Learn to recognize when your biases might be creeping in, and filter them out as much as possible to clear the way for understanding the intended messages.
Shaw's right about the problem with communication. But it's a problem that good listeners can help solve.