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Active Listening – How to Truly Listen

Active Listening – How to Truly Listen

Do you believe you are a good listener and do others agree?

If you don’t have that reputation, it’s not your fault: your brain is designed to predict what other people are going to say next. You are often so busy listening to your brain’s plotting and planning that you can’t hear what the other person is saying.

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A study conducted at Princeton University found that “speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication”. If that was so much Greek to you, let’s state it more simply: when your brain starts acting like your conversational companion’s brain, you actually communicate. You won’t be surprised to hear that the study found there is generally a lag between what you hear and what you understand, and this is where we get into trouble. In the midst of that lag, we start predicting and supposing and guessing. Too often, we are still caught up in our own reverie as our conversation partner continues talking. The good doctors at Princeton would say that our brain activities decouple at that point and that as a result comprehension starts to plummet. This is the scientist’s way of saying, “You’re not listening.”

Training Your Pet Brain

The good news is that your brain works for you: rather than letting it just do what it’s programmed to do automatically, you can train it to do new tasks. The brain is the best pet you could ever hope forit can be taught all kinds of tricks, and it loves to please its master. The trick to teaching your pet brain is concentration. Many folks find concentration to be taxing but that is because they approach it in the wrong way. While you can make yourself concentrate, sooner or later you will tire out and your brain will go back on autopilot. The result will be “neural decoupling”that is, your brain will wander off on its own.

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Concentration is more properly approached passively rather than actively. Don’t make yourself concentrate; allow yourself to concentrate. Just hear what is said, observe the nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, absorb the tone and the pace of their speech. If you find you are distracted by other stimuli or by your own thoughts, be gentle with yourself. Just guide yourself back to hearing with no self-judgment. In fact, recognize that self-judgment itself is just another distracting thought. You will find with practice that these wanderings become less frequent.

When you first attempt this, you will notice that you respond less quickly in conversation. People may not be used to you being this contemplative, so give them the chance to get used to it. Your responses will be more in tune with them, and everybody likes “in tune” better than “out of tune”. In short, they will feel heard by you like they have never felt it before.

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Brain Pattern Alignment

If you do this, something fascinating happens, according to the doctors at Princeton. They did fMRI brain scans of the participants in their study and found that people’s brain wave patterns started to align as people actually listened. Not only did the lag between hearing and understanding vanish but the listeners started to anticipate what the other person was about to say before they said it. This is not the same as your autopilot guesses; instead, what they found is your brain pattern actually starts to match that of your partner in real time. When that happens, a strong connection occurs, understanding deepens between you, and real communication takes place.

When you as the listener find yourself in the same state at the talker, you tend to move in tandem. People get a real charge out of being understood, so it is very much worth your effort to seek such an alignment. There is the practical benefit of receiving information as its imparter meant it to be received and additionally there is also an emotional connection that takes place. Even in mere business or transactional settings, there is value to such an emotional connection as it fosters trust and comfort. As a result, people believe in your sincerity and genuineness, which eases relations and lessens conflict.

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Your brain may not be so good at listening but that doesn’t mean you can’t be. Let it know who the boss is, and earn the reputation of being a good listener.

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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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