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Better Listening Skills Now

Powerful Listening


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		  Powerful Listening   

How could listening be powerful? It is usually thought of as  a passive sensory activity, a parallel to what “watching” or “viewing”  are with the eyes. It is often regarded as a poor relation in the family  of conversation activities where most emphasis is placed upon the  words spoken, the grammar, the sound of the voice.  How listening created a turning point in my life.   

At the end of the first term of my junior year at a huge state  university, I was called in for an appointment with the academic  counseling services. I had transferred from a small state college  and I was performing marginally in my academic work.   

The counselor described my record, then asked me what  had been going on with me. Then he listened as I talked,  building my case against the injustices of the professors and  the uncaring university that did not recognize or appreciate  my talent, then sharing my decision to leave the university and  not return, and to seek my fortune elsewhere, maybe New York.   

He listened carefully and without interruption to my diatribe,  then said simply, “Let me see if I heard you correctly. You were  saying . . .” and then went on to summarize the essence of what I  said, often using my exact words. When I heard how absurd and  self-centered my story seemed, I was shocked and ashamed. We  then spent some time discussing other approaches to being a  student at this university, ones that could create success, and not  only academic, but also personal success. Right then I decided to  continue, even while on a kind of probation, and to check in  periodically for academic support. Eventually I got my degree  on time with good grades, then an M.A., and later a Ph.D. and  a satisfying academic career as a university professor.   

A half-hour of careful listening had changed my life.   

Listening Requires Effort   

Powerful listening requires some serious effort. First,  to be effective – in my view – such listening must be within a  framework of collaboration, not competition. Its purpose is  dialogue, not debate. In our individualistic society, we believe  in competition. We have become accustomed to debate, and  many of our popular TV talk-shows (such as Cross-Fire) are  debates. Linguist Deborah Tannen has amply described this  cultural pattern in her 1999 book, “The Argument Culture:  Stopping America's War of Words.”   

Change in Habits Is Possible   

It is possible, but not easy, to change a pattern so well  installed into us from childhood on. That pattern is the  biggest habit we must change to be effective listeners.  Like Ginger Rodgers dancing with Fred Astaire, both of  them knew they had to collaborate for both to be  successful. Their dances were not meant to show off,  or to show up the other. When they collaborated, both  looked their best.   

Then there are the smaller patterns that need changing,  what we usually think of as “skills”. Removing those  that obstruct good listening (like being quick to “Yes, but”  the person we listen to) and learning those that assure  good listening. We can learn these by observing carefully  people who are highly accomplished listeners, then  doing what they do. These new skills take practice and  some getting used to. There are dozens of such listening  skills and many books that describe them. With each one  we acquire, and with every obstructive behavior we  eliminate, we become a more powerful listener.   

In 1959, Prof. Ralph Nichols co-authored the classic book,  Is Anybody Listening? He spent his career researching and  teaching about this subject and speaking to business groups  across the nation. His question is still valid today. Is anybody  really listening? Alas, when we consider our U.S. Congress and  Senate the answer seems to be “no”, as they are usually locked in  bitter partisan dispute. Without their seeing that legislative work  must ultimately be collaboration and not verbal warfare, they will  do no real listening.  


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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