The following is Section 3 from Module 3 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.
The Elements of Effective Listening
Effective listening has two dimensions; Attending and Responding. This distinction is found in the early work of social scientist, Robert Carkhuff, when describing listening in the context of a helping relationship.
Attending refers to those things we do in support of our ability to really pay attention when listening to one another. We have already identified a number of shifts in thinking and orientation that support this. For example the shift from a telling to a learning stance increases our capacity for curiosity and will assist to increase our focused attention. In addition there are a number of behavioral indicators of attending. Carkhuff identifies five:
- Eye Contact: Am I looking at you when you are speaking? While recognizing that there are cultural ramifications for this behavior, it is essential that I be looking at you to some extent as you share.
- Squared Shoulders: Have I oriented myself appropriately to you physically or have I assumed a posture that may have you questioning whether you really have my attention?
- No Distractions: Am I attempting to multi-task while I listen? Am I thumbing through my papers, grading assignments, or playing with my pen? Current brain research says that we are unable to multi-task effectively. If I really need you to hear me and you are attempting to multi-task, what does that tell me about your interest in, and respect for, what I have to share.
In a counseling context, Carkhuff identifies two additional behaviors that, while possibly less essential, are worth considering.
- Feet on the floor: When I sit leaning back, sometimes with my legs crossed, I may be conveying a more relaxed, possibly less caring level of listening. While there is nothing wrong with being relaxed, is it what is needed to convey my commitment to understanding?
- Leaning slightly forward: When I really want to focus my attention I may actually lean into the conversation and become very focused on what you are saying.
It is worth stating again that these are not simply behaviors that we “do” in order to make it look like we are really listening. These behaviors are in service of both the speaker and the listener. In service of the speaker they convey that what is being shared is important and that I am putting all my attention into understanding what you need me to understand. In service of the listener, these behaviors position me to be receiving and processing all that is being shared. The ideas that people share are not only conveyed by their choice of words. We must also be attuned to body language, tone of voice, facial expression and vocal inflections. It has been said that communication consists of words (7%), tone of voice (35%) and body language (58%). If I really want to understand what you are sharing, I must focus both on what you are saying in addition to how you are saying it.
The second dimension of effective listening is Respond. Fundamentally, a person does not know if they have been heard until you tell them what you have heard and what you now understand. Saying something like, “Yeah, I hear you”, or even “I hear what you’re saying”, while well intentioned is insufficient for our purposes.
Responding is about creating a feedback loop. When you share an idea with me it is said that you have “intent”. In other words you intend to shift my understanding about some issue. You encode this intent in language, verbal and non-verbal, and convey it to me. I decode the message by interpreting the language, both verbal and non-verbal and reach some understanding of what you are saying. The fundamental question is to what extent the impact of you message on me (my interpretation) matches your intent.
In a review of the literature you will often five distinct types of responding identified in support of effective listening. These include:
- Encouraging: is not technically responding. It does convey listening by encouraging the speaker to continue sharing or to say more about what is being communicated. It is a response that says, I am tracking you and I really want to hear more of what you have to say.
- Restating: may be considered classic active listening. In this context you, the listener, restate, in your own words, what you understand. It is not parroting. It is paraphrasing. More importantly it is processing what has been shared, framing it in language that makes sense to you in order to assess your understanding of the speaker’s intent.
- Reflecting: focuses on the emotional elements of what is being shared. It has been shared earlier that Crucial Conversations are characterized by differences of opinion, high stakes and strong emotions. In many difficult conversations it is not sufficient to respond to what is being shared. It may be equally important to acknowledge the emotional content of the message.
- Reframing: is less about responding to what is being shared explicitly and more about acknowledging what is being shared implicitly. For example, it has been said that “embedded in any complaint is a request”. When listening to someone share their frustration about circumstances one can restate the content of the complaint and/or reflect the emotions being conveyed. This can be appropriate. One can also highlight the implied, request, need, or interest that is somewhat “hidden” in the complaint. The person speaking may be so focused on what is not working that they are unaware of what might work or what they need. Reframing holds this up to them for consideration. It has the potential to shift a conversation from positive to negative and past to future.
- Summarizing: takes a lot of information that has been shared and summarizes the key, salient points in a succinct manner.
As a group,use the following questions and activity to increase your understanding of the importance of Attending and Responding?
- Where are you challenged when attending to another person?
- How do you currently demonstrate appropriate and effective attending?
- What do you do that impacts effective attending?
- What are your strengths when responding?
- Where are you most challenged when responding?