I was asked recently to submit a tip to be shared with a group. The instruction was, “Please send me a tip — something that makes you an expert in your field. Think ‘did you know…?’ or “consider this…” Don’t overthink it, make it light and fun!” I immediately questioned how something profound enough to reflect my expertise could also be light and fun, so I knew “Don’t overthink it” would be a tall order!
Because I’m passionate about helping people find greater connection with one another, and because the way we communicate often creates a barrier to that connection, sharing a tip related to communication seemed appropriate.
The term “poor communication” often brings to mind thoughts of someone who doesn’t express themselves well. We’ve all had experiences with people who ramble on and on, who contradict themselves, who are overly defensive or critical, who misuse words or misquote facts, who make inaccurate assumptions or broad generalizations, or who constantly interrupt. While these behaviors can absolutely contribute to poor communication, they all pertain to the speaker. It’s easy to forget that this person isn’t solely responsible for the quality of the exchange.
In a conversation between two people, both the speaker and the listener play important roles. Effective listening helps us not only to interpret information accurately, but also to build trust, resolve conflict, and increase connection. It enables us to respond to thoughts or ideas that are conveyed or feelings that are expressed, demonstrating that we care about what the speaker is saying. When we listen actively, we’re able to ask questions that allow the speaker to clarify, explain, or elaborate. We also gain insight into what type of response they may be looking for.
When we’re engaged in conversation, it’s natural for us to want to share. That’s what conversation is all about – it’s an interactive exchange. But sometimes what we want to share isn’t what the other person is looking for.
Think back to a time that you told someone about a tough situation you were dealing with, and they responded in a way that you didn’t appreciate. Maybe they tried to console you, telling you it wasn’t your fault. (OF COURSE it wasn’t your fault!) Maybe they told you to cheer up and look at the bright side. (Also not what you wanted to hear!) Maybe they told you exactly what you needed to do to fix the problem. (You didn’t ask for advice!) Or maybe they told you about a similar predicament they’d been in and how much worse it was. (Seriously?? One-upping was definitely not what you were looking for!)
All of these responses could have been rooted in good intentions, and they may have been well-received in a different conversation. But when someone offers a reply that’s at odds with what we want or need, we’re left feeling like they haven’t heard us. If challenged, they could easily defend themselves by saying, “of course I heard you! That’s why I told you… (fill in the blank).”
Effective listening encompasses more than just hearing words. It also involves an awareness of tone, body language, speed and volume. But that’s not all… a skilled listener is fully focused on the other person. They’re reflecting back what they’ve heard (for example, “wow, that sounds really tough…”) and offering nonverbal feedback, they’re gauging the speaker’s reaction, and they’re relying on those cues to direct the conversation. Their complete engagement is what leads to the feeling of deep connection.
Active listening seems to come more naturally to some people than others, but is a skill that everyone can improve upon. And as with any talent, we can only get better by practicing. The challenge for a lot of people is that they consider themselves to be good listeners but don’t have a reliable way of confirming that.
This brings me back to the tip I chose to share… “If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next, you’re not really listening.” Try keeping this in mind when you’re engaged in conversation. Pay attention to how much you’re planning your response and notice that, if that’s where your thoughts are, you’re not entirely focused on the other person. Use it as a tool for learning about yourself and where you may have room to develop your skills as a listener. Be curious about what insight you may glean and have fun with it!
Wishing you a life filled with love and connection!