Just Because You’re Hearing Doesn’t Mean You’re Listening

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

Use this short test to assess yourself, responding “Yes” or “No” to each one:

  • I use humor to help team members or co-workers who are upset get their minds off of what’s troubling them.
  • When my children share problems with me, I reassure them that things will be okay.
  • When team members tell me about problems they’re having with someone, I offer advice from my own experience.
  • I ask pertinent questions to get more information so I can determine what solutions are likely to work best for co-workers who tell me about their problems.
  • When people share problems with me, I try to analyze what’s wrong and give them some suggestions.

If you answered “Yes” to any of these, I urge you to read on to learn how to improve your listening skills.

Barriers to Communication

Most people are surprised to learn that reassuring, asking questions, giving advice and the like are not helpful responses when someone else–team member, co-worker, manager, spouse, or child–has a problem. In fact, they are major barriers–they block the other person from talking further about what’s bothering them and getting clarity or resolution to it.

Let’s say a co-worker sighs, looks dejected and says to you: “I’ll never make it! These new quotas are ridiculous!” This is a clear signal that this person is upset, distressed, has a problem and needs to be listened to and understood.

Most of us probably would react by reassuring our co-worker, “You’re a pro. I wouldn’t worry about it” or by suggesting, “I think it would be a good idea to talk to your supervisor about this” or by asking “How high are they?” Responses such as these, well intentioned as they may be, generally do more harm than good. None of them does anything to help the other person get relief from distress; none communicates understanding. Instead, they cause him/her to feel frustrated, misunderstood, patronized, and unaccepted. In effect, these responses communicate: “It’s not okay for you to feel this way” or “I’m not comfortable hearing that you’re upset so here’s how to get over it.”

Listening, Not Just Hearing

Active Listening, on the other hand, communicates to your co-worker that you understand and accept his/her feelings. (This process was first called “reflection of feelings” by the eminent psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers who espoused it as the best way for psychotherapists to respond to their clients. In the early 60’s, Rogers’ student, Dr. Thomas Gordon, brought this skill into the mainstream by teaching parents how to Active Listen to their children in his Parent Effectiveness Training {PET} program.)

You Active Listen by consciously suspending your own agenda, ideas and judgments and putting yourself in the other’s shoes.You pay complete attention to the other person, focusing on understanding their feelings. You then reflect or mirror back to them what you hear, leaving your own feelings and opinions out of the listening process. Let me say that again: leave your own feelings and opinions out. Yes, I know easier said than done. But read on.

For example your Active Listening response to “I’ll never make it! These new quotas are ridiculous!” would be something like: “You sound pretty upset” or “You’re concerned that they’re way too high,” or “The new quotas are making you really nervous.” Empathic responses such as these communicate to the other person that you understand and accept their feeling as they do. Further, reflecting back what you hear encourages the flow of communication. Now your co-worker can confirm that you heard accurately (or not) and move deeper into the problem. With continued on-target Active Listening, often s/he will experience relief, even catharsis. If you have experienced being deeply understood by another person, you know the sense of relief and well-being that results.

It’s a Learnable Skill

While listening with empathy sounds simple, it isn’t. Doing it well requires conscious awareness, strong intention and practice. Four different steps are involved:

  1. First, become aware of the cues people with whom you live and work give to signal that they have a problem.
  2. When you see or hear those signals and decide to listen, it’s hugely important to avoid responding with one of the Roadblocks to Communication, i.e., interrupting, suggesting, questioning, advising, reassuring (there are 12 categories of these barriers to avoid).
  3. Then give full attention to the other person and reflect back to them what you hear them saying and feeling; if the Active Listening is off target, they’ll say so. and you can try again.
  4. If they feel understood, usually they will keep talking and often find relief from or resolution to the concern or problem.

You might be thinking, “But I don’t have time to listen to someone’s problems.” The reality is that people are faced with adversity and problems every day; that’s an inevitable part of life. In order for us to be as productive and creative as we can be, we need to have the opportunity to vent, to talk through and solve problems that crop up and keep us from functioning at our full capacity.

Given an opportunity to be heard, people will often get clarity and ultimately resolution to what is bothering them and then can move forward–often with renewed energy and focus.