Communication plays a pivotal role in all relationships and the absence of effective communication almost invariably leads to problems. Arguably the most underutilized component in the communication cycle is listening. This is despite listening being an integral part of communication for it is only through listening that we can get the other party’s point of view as well as their reaction to what we have said.
Lack of effective listening has been blamed for the creation of artificial communication barriers which lead to decreased efficiency in communication as recipients of messages screen out or alter the meaning of what is being communicated. This paper argues that good listening skills which are essential for effective communication to be achieved can be learned for better communication. The paper shall begin by defining what the listening process is. An illustration of several benefits that can be derived from effective listening will also be given.
What is listening?
While listening is the most basic communication activity that man undertakes, many people do not recognize what it is or its potency in communication efforts. The frequent use of the terms “hearing” and “listening” interchangeably highlights the common misconception of what listening actually is. Cleary (2004) states that hearing is a natural ability which most people are born with and it only accounts for part of the listening process. She goes on to articulate that hearing is passive and entails sound waves stimulating the sensory receptors of the ear in a predominantly biological function. Hearing is, therefore, an innate ability in most human beings requiring no active input from a person in the communication process.
Listening, on the other hand, is a more complex endeavor and it involves a number of stages that culminate in the understanding of spoken and unspoken words (Cleary, 2004). The first stage in the listening process is hearing whereby the sound waves are received from a source. The second stage in the process is the attention stage whereby the listener begins to focus on what is being said as well as how it is being said.
The third stage is referred to as the understanding stage and it is here that the message’s content is analyzed and interpreted and an opinion formed (Cleary, 2004). This stage is unique to each person since every person has a differing frame of reference. The fourth state is remembering and it involves committing a message to memory for future retrieval. Finally, the listener can respond to the speaker so as to provide feedback as to his/her perception of the message.
Acquiring Listening Skills
While hearing is innate in most people, good listening skills are not natural and in many cases, people lack good listening skills. Downs (2008) asserts that a lack of good listening skills should only be viewed as a temporary set back since one can be taught how to master good listening skills and therefore become an effective communicator. She goes on to underscore that effective listening is learnable since it involves acknowledges various trends that are detrimental to the communication process and subsequently overcoming these barriers to communication. As such, the goal of listening skills training programs is to help a person overcome poor listening habits which are the major cause of ineffective listening. Some of these poor habits are acquired over time in our interactions with others and can, therefore, be unlearned.
One of the skills that are required of an effective listener is active listening. Active listening is an approach that enables one to gain insights into the other parties’ viewpoints and hence communicate effectively. This type of listening is characterized by giving verbal affirmations to demonstrate that you understand what the speaker is saying as well as nudge him to proceed. Rees and Porter (2008) suggest that in addition to what is being said, non-verbal cues must be taken into consideration in active listening. When thinking of non-verbal signals, one should think of the signals that they are sending as well as the ones they receive. As such, one should make a conscious effort to avoid sending signals that suggest boredom or disinterest in the speaker or his message.
One of the poor listening habits is interrupting a speaker while he is making his point (Downs, 2008). This leads to a disruption of the flow of ideas as well as a lack of understanding by the listener since in most cases they cut the listener short before getting the entire point. To acquire effective listening skills, one is therefore called upon to be patient and to listen to what is being said with an open mind. A person can only talk when the speaker has completed delivering his message.
Effective listening can be greatly hampered by the stereotypical perceptions we harbor (Cleary, 2004). This is because stereotyping leads to disassociation from other people and disregard for their opinions since the other people are in most cases not regarded as equals. When one is being trained to be a skilled listener, they are taught to be more aware of any stereotypical views or biases they may have. A person, therefore, tries to ensure that these preconceived notions do not cloud his opinion.
Outcome-based levels of the listening skill
Downs (2008) concedes that for training to be deemed as beneficial to both the trainer and the student, there have to be various desirable and visible outcomes of the process. The first level is the reaction of the participant to the training process. If this reaction is positive, it will infer that future training may be embraced by the student. In the second place, we have the learning level which is a measure of the extent to which learning objectives have been achieved. At this level, the skills of a person are assessed to see if they have improved. (Downs, 2008) The next level is concerned with the behavioral aspect of the learner.
This is because listening skills require that one adopt or drop certain behaviors. All these levels culminate in a person being able to demonstrate interpersonal skills through effective listening and acknowledgment of non-verbal cues which are significant in communication.
Benefits of Effective Listening
By adopting good listening skills, one is able to get the most from the speaker. For example, a skill such as looking interested in what the speaker has to say by maintaining good eye contact and facial expressions that indicate attentiveness greatly encourages the speaker to communicate more extensively. This leads to a person gaining a lot of value from the speaker who feels valued as all due attention is given to him by the skilled listener.
Good listening skills also enable one to better understand and remember the speaker’s thoughts. This is because proper listening dictates that you take the speaker’s point of view regardless of whether you have any bias. This leads to a person not interrupting the speaker and suppressing their initial reaction as they set out to hear and understand what is being said to them. By doing this, a person is able to obtain the information they would otherwise have failed to get as a result of jumping to conclusions or interrupting the speaker.
Learning listening skills enables one to be aware of certain prejudices or biases that they may have. By acknowledging this, one is able to actively prevent themselves from stereotyping a speaker. This leads to an open and receptive communication relationship which results in the listener gaining from the speaker without letting stereotypical views derail the communication process.
Listening is a very important part of the communication process. This paper set out to show that listening skills can be learned with numerous benefits for a person. The paper began by differentiating listening from hearing and proceeded to demonstrate how listening skills can be acquired. Most of these effective listening skills involve an active effort to overcome poor listening habits. From the discussions offered in this paper, it is evident that acquiring listening skills is hugely beneficial for all parties to involve in the communication process.
Cleary, S. (2004). The Communication Handbook: A Student Guide to Effective Communication. Juta and Company Ltd. Web.
Downs, L. J. (2008). Listening Skills Training. American Society for Training and Development. Web.
Rees, D. W. & Porter, C. (2008). Skills of Management. Cengage Learning EMEA. Web.