Again, many of us think we listen, yet we don't always "attend" to the person who is speaking to us. We are too busy doing other things! We are not being 100% attentive. The following attributes of good listening are suggestive of the skills needed. There is some overlap between the various attributes, but each suggests something different.
Dynamic Listening Involves:
Concentration. Good listening is normally hard work. We live in a time that is highly demanding on us all. We are moving fast paced with a hundred things on our minds at any given time. Many of us wear a lot of hats and our plates "runneth" over. But when we are committed to giving SF help, we have to repress almost all of these and concentrate on the verbal sounds (and visual clues) from one source - the speaker. And this concentration, is something that most of us have not been thoroughly trained in how to do. Focus your attention - on the words, ideas and feeling related to the subject. Concentrate on the main ideas or points. All of this takes a conscious effort and self discipline.
Attention. Attention may be defined as the visual portion of concentration on the speaker. Through eye contact and other body language, we communicate to the helpee that we are paying close attention to his/her messages. All the time we are reading the verbal and nonverbal cues from the helpee, the helpee is reading ours. What messages are we sending out? If we lean forward a little and focus our eyes on the person, the message is we are paying close attention. If we are diverting our eyes to the clock, writing something on paper, the message is that we are not paying attention.
Eye contact. Good eye contact is essential for several reasons: First, by maintaining eye contact, we will not be so easily distracted by the visuals around us. Second, 75 to 80% of messages are in non-verbal form and by watching the eyes and face and physical movements of a person we pick up clues as to the content. A fumbling with the fingers may indicate nervousness. Finally, and maybe most important, our eye contact with the speaker is immediate feedback concerning the message they are attempting to give us. It says in essence, yes, I am listening, I am paying attention. I hear you. Remember: a person's face, mouth, eyes, hands and body all help to communicate to you. No other parts of the body are as expressive as the head and eyes.
Body Language. Certain body postures and movements are culturally interpreted with specific meanings. The crossing of arms and legs is perceived to mean a closing of the mind and attention. The nodding of the head vertically is interpreted as agreement or assent. Of course, nonverbal clues such as these vary from culture to culture just as the spoken language does. If seated, the leaning forward with the upper body communicates attention. Standing or seated, the maintenance of an appropriate distance is important. Too close and we appear to be invading the private space of another, and too far and we are seen as cold and distant.
Understanding of Language Meaning must be imputed to the words. But, as we all know, many words in the English language has numerous meanings. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you as the listener to concentrate on the context of the usage in order to correctly understand the message. The spoken portion of the language is only a fraction of the message. Voice inflection, body language and other symbols send messages also.
Objectivity. We should be open to the message the other person is sending. It is very difficult to be completely open because each of us is strongly biased by the weight of our past experiences. We give meaning to the messages based upon what we have been taught the words and symbols mean by our parents, our peers and our teachers. Talk to someone from a different culture and watch how they give meaning to words. For example, the word "family" has a different meaning to Haitians than it does for Americans. Though it is similar, it is still different and must be comprehended from their perspective if you are to be successful in being objective. Or another listening challenge is to listen open and objectively to a person with very different political or religious beliefs.
Restating the message. Your restating the message as part of the feedback can enhance the effectiveness of good communications. A comment such as: "I want to make sure that I have fully understood your message...." and then paraphrase in your own words the message. If the communication is not clear, such a feedback will allow for immediate clarification. This is mandatory! It is paramount that you state the message as clearly and objectively as possible.
Questioning/Clarifying. Questions can serve the same purpose as restating the message. If you are unclear about the intent of the message, ask for more information after allowing sufficient time for explanations. Don't ask questions that put people on the spot. Never engage in questioning that will hurt, humiliate or show up the other person. Only part of the responsibility is with the speaker. You have an important and dynamic role to play also. If the message does not get through, all else is an exercise in futility.
Empathy. Empathy is the "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another...." Sympathy is "having common feelings..." (Merrian Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition) In other words as a good listener you need to be able to understand the other person. Try to put yourself in the speaker's position so that you can see what he/she is trying to get at. Be empathetic and nonjudgmental: When you value the speaker and accept the speaker's feelings you will be able to empathize more fully, to "hear" more clearly and completely and to offer them the gift of being heard. Please, do not be judgemental.
Pauses. Intentional pauses can be used very effectively in listening. For example, a pause at some points in the feedback can be used to signal that you are "thinking" about what was just said.
Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. http://www.clergyservices4u.org She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: A Grief Healing Workbook, will be available soon.