Listening to Understand

By Alice Munson, Courier & Press, August 4, 2015 –

I feel fairly sure most of us believe we know how to listen. You may be thinking, “How complicated could it be?”

As a Youth First social worker, I do a lot of listening. As graduate social work students we were introduced to the book, “Active Listening,” by Carl R. Rogers and Richard E. Farson, and the term “active listening.” Some graduate students assumed this would be easy because, after all, who doesn’t know how to listen? It was hard to imagine this was a skill we would actually have to learn and practice.

Rogers and Farson define active listening as “listening to and confirming an understanding of what another says as well as the emotions and feelings underlying the message. Goal: to ensure that understanding is accurate so instructions can be directed to the student’s (person’s) actual needs and the student can be encouraged to engage with the material.”

Rogers and Farson state the basics of active listening as:

  • Responding to feelings (nonverbal cues)
  • Listening for total meaning without judgment
  • Feeding back to the speaker what is heard

Whew! Sounds like a major process, doesn’t it? But the truth is most of us are probably doing much of it already.

An anonymous person once said, “Every good conversation starts with good listening.” This is the Cliff Notes version of active listening and says it all. It assumes that good listeners listen attentively.

Isn’t this a skill we teach our young children? Is there a parent alive who has not said, “Please listen” to their young child? Then we often ask for feedback by saying, “What did I just say?”. Eventually we get to the stage where we feel confident our children are actually hearing what we say.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Stephen R. Covey, author of the Seven Habits series: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

I know that when I first read this, I was surprised in the simple truth of that statement, and it has served as a reminder to me to slow down and pay attention when I am feeling rushed. It also helps us re-evaluate our intentions and concentrate on the speaker instead of ourselves. The more we practice the more it becomes a habit. In the words of Marge Piercy, “If you want to be listened to you should put in the time listening.”

One of my favorite quotes is, “The word LISTEN contains the same letters as SILENT,” by Alfred Brendel. The words in this quote can actually do more than increase your chances to score in a game of Words with Friends.

When we listen it is sometimes hard to remain silent. Mentally reviewing our to-do list, thinking about future appointments or planning what to make for dinner can easily intrude into our listening. Often others are aware of our distraction even if we are not. If we cannot clearly hear another’s words, how can we discern what that person is hoping to share with us?

Another favorite quote for social workers and others is from Leo Buscaglia: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

You may be surprised about what you discover by listening to yourself and others. It’s easier than you think; just try it.