Teaching Listening Skills: Is It Time for a Change?

Effective communication is dependent upon oneメs ability to listen openly with ears, eyes, and mind.

By Ellen Freed

Listening looks easy, but it's not simple. Every head is a world.

—Cuban Proverb

Effective communication is at the heart of establishing the trust so necessary for developing and maintaining long-term business relationships. Whether you are a manager, professional sales representative, or account executive, it is crucial to continually strengthen your ability to accurately decipher and appropriately handle verbal and non-verbal signals received from a speaker.In particular, listening becomes even more important during those defining moments that may indicate subtle forms of resistance. Handling these moments successfully often can pay off in big dividends.

Listening With Your Ears, Eyes, and Mind

What really happens when one is communicating effectively as a listener in the real world outside the training room?

In an instant, you need to simultaneously identify a mix of verbal, vocal, and visual cues, some of which may convey a double or mixed message. In a sense, you take a synergistic snapshot of all the signals being sent by the speaker. This means listening with ears, eyes, and mind, recognizing positive and negative voice tones, word choices, and body language in an attempt to receive the true, clear message. All of this must occur in real time on the spot.

Traditional Listening Workshops

“Many ‘active listening’ seminars are, in actuality, little more than a shallow theatrical exercise in appearing like you’re paying attention to another person. The requirements: Lean forward, make eye contact, nod, grunt, or murmur to demonstrate you’re awake and paying attention, and paraphrase something back every 30 seconds or so. As one executive I know wryly observed, many inhabitants of the local zoo could be trained to go through these motions, minus the paraphrasing.”

—Robert K. Cooper, Ph.D.,Author of “Executive EQ”

Being able to take synergistic snapshots of verbal and non-verbal signals on the spot may go beyond what traditionally is taught in training programs on communication skills. Discrimination exercises, behavior models, and even role-plays can fly out the window when one is confronted with a tough and important real-life interaction.

In a typical workshop, discrimination exercises on body language, voice tone, and word choice are taught separately first. Then all the content usually is put together for practice in the context of role-plays, which do not simulate the speed of real time. Also, any application activity is contingent upon the participants’ abilities to use body language, voice tone, and word choices appropriately and effectively.

“The Zone Less Travelled”

To truly excel as a listener, one must enter a zone seldom discussed by behaviorists—the illusive territory of the preconscious and instinctive. Here, the mind and senses are cleared for takeoff, ready to receive the speaker’s complex set of signals. It is similar to the zone one encounters in playing tennis where conscious strategy is replaced by an intuitive response of instant movement toward the ball. Most players agree that the best shots are hit when you are in this zone.

Most training workshops on listening do not deal with this issue. Perhaps the time has come to address it as an important element in conquering the challenges of effective communication.

Getting into “The Zone”

You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.

—M. Scott Peck, MD

Man’s inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively.

—Carl Rogers

Bracketing refers to the temporary setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference, and desires so the listener can experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside. Dr. Peck considers “bracketing” an essential part of effective listening. It sends an important message to the speaker, who, sensing the implied acceptance by the listener, will be inclined to open up with a more honest response. Also, he believes new knowledge is always gained from the ability to step into the speaker’s shoes. Easier said than done!

How can you prepare to get into the zone by clearing your mind of prejudicial and judgmental clutter?

Enter Carl Rogers and philosopher Eugene Gendlin, who created a six-step process called “focusing” that originally was designed to help clients succeed in therapy. However, it soon became apparent that step one, Clearing a Space, a method for enhancing receptivity, could be useful in the fields of education, theology, health care, and business.

Clearing a Space is a 10-minute exercise that guides participants into explicitly naming and setting aside each person’s current stressors. Each issue that arises is acknowledged, and then respectfully placed outside the body, using imagery such as depositing the problem on a boat and sending it out to sea, or finding an appropriate spot to store it. Gradually, as each concern travels outside the body, more space is created inside, precipitating openness to someone else’s experience.

Taking Synergistic Snapshots

Listening from a cleared space paves the way for the ability to be present without judgment and provides a clear lens for the challenging task of taking synergistic snapshots in real time. Here’s a cost-effective exercise designed to strengthen this skill:

Prepare a set of 10 to 15 scripted, customized speaker statements that represent challenging defining moments for the participant population. In addition to the text, indicate body language and voice tone. Also, create a worksheet checklist designed to capture the true message being sent.

Then hire live actors to play the speakers in real time. Remember: They will be better able to demonstrate the verbal and non-verbal cues more accurately than workshop members.

Using the worksheet, participants observe the actors and within seconds, identify the type of message being demonstrated. The next statement is presented immediately, simulating real-time interactions.

One thing is certain: Effective communication is dependent upon one’s ability to listen openly with ears, eyes, and mind. Only then can the listener become a successful speaker!

Ellen Freed is a New York City instructional designer/writer. She develops e-learning and instructor-led training (ILT) materials for the financial services and pharmaceutical industries and specializes in professional selling and communication skills.

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