Tips for a Successful Listening Session

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Tips – November 2018
Tips for a Successful Listening Session

Last month’s blog, read here, addresses the difficult times we find ourselves in, where we need more bridges to connection, and fewer isolated, though comfortable, bubbles of like-mindedness. One of the keys to connection is active listening. Every sage piece of advice I have seen on the topic of conflict includes “listening, REALLY listening, active listening”. I wonder how many of us, me at the top of the list, take the time to understand active listening, and really practice it. How many times do I find myself responding automatically, with the same tried and true comments, only to shut my talking partner down. That is not what I want, and I assume that is not what you want either.

Good listening has many benefits beyond the obvious act of understanding. Active listening, which is the requisite to storytelling, can be thought of as an act of love, claims Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps. ( Research confirms this: sharing stories strengthens the bond between the listener and the storyteller and makes people feel that their lives are meaningful and have dignity and worth. [1] People I’ve talked with from all views about our difficult times support the notion that we need to increase our bonds of connection and build bridges.

Active listening has at least 2 important underpinnings. One is the acknowledgment that it takes real effort to suspend judgement, a very necessary step to hearing someone out. The second principle is that the listener has to manage their emotions, even if the talker is not. These are two reasons that active listening is HARD WORK. Our own emotions get snagged in the process, we don’t like hearing what the other has to say, and we are convinced our way is right. Recipe for a standoff.

Here are some tips to help guide your listening session to a great outcome.

Why. Start with the purpose for your talk. Deep down inside do you really want to convince the other to change their mind? Try these ideas on. I want him to feel understood. OR I want to really understand her obstacle to our plan. Casting the line out for a successful listening session may mean that you will have to wait on the “convincing the other person part.” Do not rush this. Make sure that you are willing to really listen, not convince.

Setting. Pick an appropriate time and place. It goes without saying that a public place is usually a bad idea. Limit the potential for distractions. Look directly at your talker. Give your talker the respect of your full attention and eye contact.

Non-verbals. Monitor your own body language. Watch tension, defensive signals. Maintain a relaxed posture and see how different you feel compared to arms crossed tightly across your chest.

Managing Emotion. When you find yourself reacting emotionally to what the person is saying, remind yourself of the purpose. I am here to understand. I don’t have to accept it, or change my mind. I am not a fool for listening to the arguments of the other side. I just need to show that I am willing to listen. Take a deep breath. If necessary, take a break. You could even say, “some of this is hard to listen to, but I want to. Let’s break for 5 minutes or so and get a (soda, water, coffee).”

Show Understanding. At some point when the talker has stopped, ask him if you have heard him right. Rephrase in your own words. . . do not parrot back his exact words. And do not take the shortcut by saying “I understand you/what you mean/your point.” SHOW the person you understand by using your own words to express their views. If you did not get the point, listen some more until the talker is satisfied.

Is It My Turn Now? When the talker is finished, take a breath and reflect on this. . . simply understanding her was your goal. You do not need to agree with the views, and you do not need to explain your own position. In fact, at the end of a successful listening session may be the wrong time to get your turn. It depends on the receptivity of the talker, and the context of the conversation. Is this a work project that has to go full tilt ahead? Then you should ask for your turn. Is this a personal crisis with time needed for reflection? Give the process some time before you come back to the conversation. It is possible that you won’t be invited to share your views in the same way, and you will have to live with that. But a more likely outcome is that the mood will be such that you can say something like, “I’d really like a chance for you to understand my side. Can we do it later, or is now OK?” Just remember the purpose. . . to understand and be understood. Change may come after that.

[1] Smith, E. The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. (New York: Broadway Books, New York, 2017, p. 210).

Jill Bachman, MSN