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Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

Listening is arguably the most important element of interpersonal communication. Our ability to listen well impacts the quality of all of our relationships, and not just at home with our family and friends—it can also affect our relationships and interactions on the job, as well as the effectiveness and quality of our work.

Listening is not something that comes naturally or easily for most of us, however; it is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced. Active listening means, as its name suggests, means that we make a conscious and concerted effort to fully engage with the speaker. Active listening is the difference between simply hearing, and listening with the intent to truly understand. It is a subtle but important distinction.

A Few Active Listening Guidelines

Give focused attention – Try to minimize external distractions. Turn down the noise, and put down or step away from what you’re doing if possible. Also, set aside other internal thinking and dialogue. Don’t watch the clock, fidget or go over your to-do list for later.

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Maintain eye contact – Direct eye contact shows your attention and intention to listen. This doesn’t mean stare though. Intense eye contact can be intimidating to some—especially the shy or introverted. Be reasonable, but try not to let your eyes wander to whatever is going on around you.

Smile – Facial expressions convey a lot, and a smile is open, inviting, and encouraging.

Watch body language Be conscious of your body language. Keep an open posture, a non-aggressive stance, face the speaker(s), lean in rather than away, watch your hands, how you tilt your head and your expressions. (For instance, I tend to cross my arms in front of me because it feels comfortable and wrinkle my brow because I’m concentrating, but this body language can appear defensive or critical, so I need to make an effort to soften a bit.) Pay attention to the speaker’s body language as well. It works both ways.

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Offer encouragement – Nod occasionally, and offer a judiciously placed ‘Yes,’ “OK”. ‘I understand”, or “Good”. Just be careful not to overdo it or you risk coming across as irritating or rushing. If used sparingly and authentically, encouragement is affirming.

Allow silence – Silence in a conversation can be scary, but a pause allows the speaker to gather their thoughts and for you to digest what is being said.

Don’t interrupt! – It’s disrespectful and distracting.

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Reflect back – Restate, but don’t repeat verbatim. Paraphrase what you think the other party is saying with responses such as: “What I’m hearing is…” or “Let me see if I’m following you…” Reflecting back what you’ve heard signals that you’re attempting to understand fully.

Clarify – Ask relevant questions to make sure you understand. Make them open-ended questions, if possible. A “yes” or “no” may confirm, but an explanation offers more information. Probe for feelings. Sometimes the emotions behind the words are more important than the words themselves when someone is seeking to be understood.

Keep an open-mind – Defer judgments, whether agreement or disagreement and don’t make assumptions. Wait until the speaker is finished before formulating opinions. It’s so hard not to think about what you’re going to say next, especially if there’s disagreement, but you miss what is being said if you’re thinking about your own response.

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Respond appropriately – Be open and honest in your responses. Share your thoughts, insights and feelings in a clear, but respectful and considerate manner. You can acknowledge the speaker’s concerns and thoughts even if you disagree…especially when you disagree.

Active listening is a model for good communication. Remember that listening is not just to gather information and share ideas, but also to gain perspective and understanding. It takes practice to develop active listening skills, and it’s a habit that has to be reinforced. Remind yourself that the goal of conversation is not merely to trade words, but to truly understand what the other party is saying and to be understood in turn.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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