Factors that Influence Effective Listening

It is so easy to drift into other worlds of thinking despite our best efforts to listen to another person. It is not so easy sometimes to verbalize what it is that we want to say. It is often quite a skill to consistently dominate a conversation while saying the same thing over and over or while using “filler” to stay in control as the one who is doing all of the talking.

Effective listening relates to effective speaking. When a person is a problematic speaker, there are challenges to maintaining attention and separating the nonsense from the important facts.

 There are a few ways that people can become effective listeners: through having clear ideas about the desired information, repeating what was heard, tuning out visual distractions and by giving cues or help to get the other person to give up the required information.

Preconceptions and limited desire for information:

Doctors, lawyers and other professionals are often concerned about getting only the desired information and nothing more. This creates problems, of course, when the patient is talking about something else and the doctor or attorney tunes them out, focused into a tunnel of specificity. The client can nudge professionals into more effective “listening” by bringing written summaries of their additional symptoms or issues and by making the doctor or lawyer read them and respond to them, even if the response is delayed until the next visit.

In another example of clear ideas about desired information, we ask another person about something with preconceptions that we want to have confirmed. By being open to information that is quite different than our preconceptions or expectations, we are better able to stay focused on the details that another speaker is giving.

Repeating what is heard:

When we come back to a person with statements that begin with “so, it went this way…” or “so he said…” or “Here’s what I’m getting out of this conversation”.  This gives the speaker a clear understanding as to how their information or comments are being interpreted. It gives the speaker an opportunity to correct any faulty communication or interpretations of facts.

Nudging the speaker along:

Some speakers are lying. By repeating what is heard, asking astute questions and giving feedback that “reads between the lines”, people who are problem liars will start to deconstruct and contradict themselves.

Other speakers  are not lying. They just do not have all of the facts and have come to alarming or serious conclusions, anyway. By asking for the kinds of facts that would support the speaker’s conclusions, it will become apparent, without a lot of confrontation, whether the speaker knows anything that supports their assumptions or alarming statements.

Some speakers are trying to articulate something that they have never articulated before or that they do not fully understand. Sometimes, there is a lot of urgency and stress involved.  By repeating what was said, being patient and supportive and asking questions, the speaker can be encouraged and helped through the process of working through the problem and developing ways to articulate about it.

Listening to the worst speakers:

Random, repetitive personal tics and behaviors are torture for a listener. The lecturer who rubs his nose or blinks her eyes in a certain way on a random, repetitive basis will create their own distractions to what it is that they are saying.

It is best to not look at the speaker if tics and personal movements become distracting and bothersome.

Speakers who use filler to meet the time frame are a bit more difficult. By the time the random, off topic, fruitless anecdote or side story is over, listening has stopped and the return to relevant and important content has been missed, especially if the speaker does not give a signal.

Often, body language will tell when the speaker is getting back on topic. They may change their body position to a more formal one, for example. Sometimes, the tenor, volume, speed or cadence of speech will change when the speaker gets back to the important content. Learning to look for these signals will help the listener to refocus  when the mind drifts.

Finally, some speakers have no plan for what it is that they have to say and will ramble all over the place, mixing the irrelevant with the relevant. There is very little that an effective listener can do, except to observe and to find out how the speaker changes volume, rate of speech and posture or how they make other signals to indicate that they consider a certain part of the rambling, disjointed lecture to be important.

Sometimes, it works to send signals to the speaker that they are losing their audience. This might cause the speaker to react by changing their game plan. Slumping a little without looking hostile, refusing to make eye contact, and closing the notebook might send a signal that the speaker is not in contact with the audience.

In listening, there is work to be done by both people who are working to communicate with each other. The speaker needs to know if their intended message has been received. The listener needs content that is presented well enough to be understood. This makes effective speaking and listening a circular and recursive process. With large lectures to large audiences, this personal and recursive level of communication is not always possible. But with smaller groups, or just two people, there are ways to listen effectively by interacting with the speaker.