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The art of listening: How do you listen beyond words?

Being listened by your loved one. Confiding in a friend. Sharing your thoughts and ideas with your peers. Listening to your own feelings and needs. It does sound reassuring, does it not? We appreciate being listened to, though we often forget to listen to others.

Millions of thoughts running through our head, plenty to worry about, endless to-do lists, so much to talk about. Who has time to actually listen? Jumping from one meeting to the other, preparing a client’s presentation or the monthly accounting reports, juggling multiple roles from professional responsibilities to personal affairs. What happens though when we don't? What is the big deal after all? Listening is an art. Listening is choosing to leave our opinions and beliefs aside to give room to other people's thoughts and feelings. Including your own when you take the time to listen to yourself. But why is it so important to listen to what others have to say? Especially when it seems not interesting at all!

Most research tells us that active listening is a valuable communication skill, guiding you to obtain detailed information as well as avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts along the road. Completely and utterly true. It enables an effective dialogue, being solution-oriented and a structured way to understand, evaluate and respond to any scenario.

What else can come out from this invaluable communication ability? You can learn about others and yourself. There is plenty being said not only in words, but also through body language. Active listening is a door to strengthen relationships, to get you closer and connected to the other person. Mastering this skill in a world where most people rush instead of slowing down, talk instead of listening, react instead of acting, is bound to be a success in your professional and personal life.

Below are 5 strategies to help you develop your active listening skills while keeping you present and connected.

1. Stay curious: We talked about curiosity before during our approach to divergent thinking. Being curious is not the same as being nosy and wanting to know specific details of other people’s lives. It is mostly about showing interest while listening to someone, allowing them to share and keeping the dialogue flowing with occasional questions or interjections. Your interests can be completely opposite, your beliefs can be utterly different. Remember that listening actively is not about you, rather about the other person. In addition, keeping your curiosity about what the other is sharing may surprise you. You may find out that you have indeed similar preferences or even pick up a new interest that never crossed your mind before.

2. Show empathy: For some people getting emotional when watching a romantic movie scene or crying while hearing someone narrating a sad story is quite natural. Whereas for others empathy does not come easily. Which should not be a reason to feel inadequate or to stop trying. If you are thinking about that last conversation with a friend where you felt sorry for him or her, we are thinking in different directions. Empathy is not the same as sympathy or pity. Being empathic is to understand and share the feelings of another, the ability to put yourself on other people’s shoes without having gone necessarily through a similar situation. Going beyond spoken words, showing empathy is holding the physical and emotional space for the other.

3. Don’t try to solve: You may see yourself as a fixer. You are solution-oriented and are probably used to solve problems in your daily routine. It is only natural to put these aptitudes to work when in conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. Perhaps you have assumed people are looking for advice, when often they just want to be listened to. They might be searching for answers, but how could you have them if it is their challenges and their life, not yours. Do not try to fix everything and everyone, it is not your responsibility. People will not be more grateful or wiser with your advice; if anything, they might hold you accountable when something goes sideways.

4. Be aware of body language: We say way more than we consciously realize. Our tone, intonation, posture, gestures, facial expressions are a mirror of our internal world. Has it happened to you to be talking to someone and suddenly feeling your jaw tightening or your muscles contracting? Your body is likely mirroring your uncomfortableness around the person or the subject at hand. And often it is already too late to fake a yawn or a frown. Do your best to show receptiveness through your body language, letting the other person at ease to share openly. In case you are extremely uncomfortable, no reason to feel trapped. You should let the other person know your boundaries, especially when addressing personal matters at work.

5. Stop talking: Your thoughts are inspiring, your ideas are innovating, your opinions are solid. I am sure they are. But again, it is not about you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying: Stay silent and do not share your brilliant ideas. There is a time for everything though. If someone has reached out to confide in you, vent about a current problem, or share a business idea let them talk. Give the other person space to pour out their heart or brainstorm aloud before interrupting. In other words, stop talking and start listening. We tend to reply immediately or being in our own head thinking about the next thing to say. Often people do not need more words or ideas to add to their own, they need a safe space to let their thoughts and feelings out.

More than once a week I hear a friend or a client saying, “I have to talk so much and with so many people, that I’m exhausted at the end of the day”. I always wonder how much they listen compared to how much they talk. We spend hours looking at screens, typing and texting on our phones, talking to clients and colleagues, reprimanding our children, complaining about life. We have forgotten to listen to ourselves as well as to others. We hear the noise without listening to the words. There is a whole world of wisdom and hope in the art of listening. What about putting your active listening skills to the test?



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