Listen to understand, not to reply.

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“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

Is hearing the same as listening?

The answer is NO. Hearing is a physiological ability; it employs a primary sensory organ (ears) to receive sounds. Hearing occurs on a subconscious level. We have no control over what we hear, and most of the time, we may not even be aware of it. On the other hand, listening is a skill which requires full concentration and thus is done at a conscious level. It involves interpreting, decoding and understanding sounds that we hear. It incorporates more than one sense and is an active mental process.

Are you truly listening?

Listening is not just staying silent when the other person is talking. It is about interpreting the meaning behind what the other person is trying to say. Humans are social beings, and in a social situation, the pressure to be communicative takes over our skill of interpreting and we start listening to respond rather than listening to understand. “How do I respond to this?” “What do I say?”

This phase is known as lag-time.

When we think of listening, we view it as a passive activity. However, listening is a difficult task, and it is entirely psychological. 

We tend to focus upon things that work in our favour; things that we want to listen. While conversing, we are focused on cues/gaps or the right time to inject our views, wisdom and experiences. While arguing we get so engrossed in proving our point and winning the argument, that we forget to listen to what the other person is trying to say. In our mind, we are already devising a statement or a comeback and are impatiently waiting for our turn.

When we listen to respond, we violate the other person’s trust and curb their freedom of expression. We make the person uncomfortable and irritated. She/he feels demotivated to continue. They question whether their thoughts are worth telling to the person who is ‘listening’. It affects not only the person speaking but also to the person listening to respond. She/he becomes restless and anxious. Both the participants leave defeated, anxious, annoyed, defensive and misinterpreted. Ironically, the person we might be talking to is doing the same thing and continuing the selfish cycle of listening to respond.

To improve communication and relations, one must know how to listen to understand, and not just to reply.

 Active listening – When you listen to understand, you empathize with the person. You let the person be free. You try to understand what the other person is trying to say, the meaning behind those words. (Feelings, emotions and body language) 

 People interrupt because they are in a hurry to prove their point or to share their experiences. They either think it is the right time or they think they might forget what they are going to say. Don’t interrupt the person, even if you disagree or you want to defend yourself. 

  • Be open-minded: when conversing with people. If your friend is sharing his/her problems, don’t give advice or state your opinion, unless they ask for it. Give yourself a minute to grasp the information, and then respond. It can help you in understanding the situation better.
  • Be attentive: Don’t focus on the little details; you might misinterpret the bigger picture. Repeat what the other person is saying in your head. If you find yourself zoning out, ask questions to be sure. 
  • Body language: When you are talking, you consciously filter things that you might not want to share. Body language refers to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, movements and posture. It helps you understand the other person better. 
  • Paraphrasing: Repeating what the other person said using different words. It not only helps the listener to clear his/her doubts but it also helps the speaker as it gives him/her a sense of being heard. It also shows the person that you’re attentive.
  • Practice: To be better at a skill, you need to practice. Try to incorporate these points in your daily life. Practice the art of not interrupting when someone is speaking. Listen to understand, and not just for the sake of hearing out. 

Having an empathetic listener can be reassuring to a person who is suffering from a mental health problem. It provides an accepting and healthy environment for the person.

We are humans, we want people to listen to us. We want to be social. We need to understand that the other person, one with whom we are communicating with is a human too. She/he deserves the same. Listen to understand and not to reply, this will improve your interpersonal relations as well as intrapersonal growth. It will provide you with mental peace as no one will go dejected and misunderstood. People will respect you and will reciprocate your behaviour. We treat this process of communication as a race, everybody wants to share their knowledge first. We need to learn to listen and listen to learn.

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