Silence is Not Always Golden

(from the L.E.T. book by Dr. Thomas Gordon)

(This Blog is a continuation from the one posted on July 27th.)

We can never be absolutely certain we have completely or accurately understood another person, so it is essential to test the accuracy of our listening and minimize the misunderstanding and distortion that occur in most interpersonal communication. Door Openers, Passive Listening, and Acknowledgment Responses show only the listener’s intent to understand; Active Listening gives proof that the listener has indeed understood. This proof is what makes the sender keep talking and go deeper into the problem.

Active Listening (originally named Reflective Listening by it’s creator, Dr. Carl Rogers) is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender. It’s a check: is my impression acceptable to the sender? Still, learning to do Active Listening well is a rather difficult task requiring a lot of practice over a period of time. Experience from training many thousands of leaders in the Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T.) course confirms that with practice most trainees can acquire a reasonable level of competence in several weeks.

To get more familiar with this way of responding, first read each of the following messages and then read aloud the listener’s response (each is an accurate feedback):

1. Sender: I don’t know how I’m going to untangle this messy problem.
Listener: You’re really stumped on how to solve this one.

2. Sender: (Loudly) Why is it that I can’t get accurate blueprints out of Engineering?
Listener:  It makes you angry when you find errors in their prints.

3. Sender: I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening to you. I guess my mind is occupied with a problem at home with my son, Greg. He’s all screwed up.
Listener: Sounds like you’re really worried about him.

4. Sender: Please, don’t ask me about that now.
Listener: Sounds like you’re awfully busy right now.

5. Sender: I thought the meeting today accomplished nothing!
Listener: You were very disappointed with the way it went.

6. Sender: I don’t see why I have to fill out two pages of that request form every time I want something from Purchasing!
Listener: You’re finding it too time-consuming and question its usefulness, I gather.

The Rationale for Active Listening

To prevent or minimize misunderstandings in person-to-person communication would be sufficient reason for leaders to make the effort to become competent Active Listeners. But other reasons are equally compelling.

For the last several decades some psychologists have been attempting to identify the critical ingredients in human relationships that foster personal growth and psychological health. This intensive search, which initially focused only on identifying the characteristics and behavior of effective professional helping agents (counselors and psychotherapists), eventually led some to study the personal qualities of effective teachers, effective marriage partners, and effective parents. Rather conclusive evidence emerged that at least two ingredients are necessary in any relationship of one person fostering growth and psychological health in another—empathy and acceptance.

active listening communicationEmpathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand their “personal world of meaning”—how they view their reality, how they feel about things. Active Listening performs this very function. A climate in which a person can frequently feel empathically understood is conducive to that person’s overall psychological health and personal growth. I believe this happens primarily because such a climate facilitates problem-solving, which results in greater need satisfaction. When people solve problems and get their needs satisfied, they are freed to move farther up Maslow’s pyramid toward the higher level needs, discovering new ways of finding self-achievement and self-development.

Acceptance, as you may know a la L.E.T., is feeling okay about what a person is doing, and “Acceptable Behaviors” belong in the top area of the Behavior Window.

Obviously we have no need to change acceptable behaviors, and so we can accept the other person just as she is at the moment (the behavior is not interfering with our own needs getting met). Passive Listening, Acknowledgment Responses, and particularly Active Listening are the verbal responses (or vehicles) for communicating acceptance because they communicate clearly:

• I hear what you are feeling.
• I understand how you are seeing things now.
• I see you as you are right now.
• I am interested and concerned.
• I understand where you are now.
• I have no desire to change you.
• I do not judge or evaluate you.
• You don’t have to feel afraid of my censure.

In sharp contrast to Passive Listening, Acknowledgment Responses, and Active Listening, certain other messages typically communicate the listener’s desire or intent to change the helpee—a need to direct her behavior or influence her to behave differently. These responses slow down or inhibit problem-solving, which is why I have named them the “Roadblocks to Communication.” (Yes, you guessed it—to be continued!)

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