Uncovering Context: The Art of Listening

-Amar B Shrestha

We generally do not have discussions, we have debates, and that’s why we have more of arguments and less of conversations. Let’s listen more and talk less.

It’s already complicated as it is; men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Communication between men and women are skewed, blame nature for that. It’s an inherent thing, men communicate in different ways than women do. Add to that the fact that people in general, both sexes, are so preoccupied with their own feelings, needs, and me-first attitude, and what you get is a communication crisis. At the root of it all is that we hardly listen to what others are saying. Really listen. In short, we think we are listening but we are really not. And, fact of the matter is, listening is at least half of the communication process. We generally do not have discussions, we have debates, and that’s why we have more of arguments and less of conversations.

I do not have to reply
What’s to be done about it? Well, first and foremost, let’s try to uncover context when we are communicating with each other. This means, trying to find out what the other is really meaning when he/she is saying something. How do we do this? By keeping an open mind, by making sure that we do not fall into the trap of always being ready with a response. The next time you are with a person, say this to yourself: I will not reply; I will only listen. I do not need to reply.

Now that you have done so, give the other person your full attention without having the thought that you are required to respond. What happens then? What will happen is this: your mind will not be busy thinking of what to say, and so will be more open to what the other is saying. Also, to encourage the other person to say his/her mind, make your body language encouraging. How? By leaning forward; by cocking your head towards your companion; by keeping your mobile in your pocket; there are a myriad of things you can do that will make clear that you are giving full attention to what the other is saying. And, since you have made up your mind that you will not get ready to respond, you will be able to get a deeper understanding of what the other is trying to communicate to you. Of course it’s not easy to train yourself to be so attentive. We are all programmed to respond. However, this leads to all sorts of communication problems. So, it’s a question of de-programming oneself.

I’ll let the silence alone
Another thing to keep in mind is that moments of silence during such times tend to make us uneasy. This is something that is inborn in us. That is why we immediately jump in with some response at such moments, thus effectively disturbing the flow. This is why a part of our minds are mostly busy preparing a response even as we pretend to be listening. This is why, during conversations, we are actually only waiting for the other person to finish so that we can put in our two bits’ worth. This holds more importance for us than what the other person is saying. That’s not what is meant by listening, that’s not what is meant by giving one’s full attention. In many cases, notice how we start talking even before the other person has finished. That’s because we think we have already listened enough. Now, that is certainly not going to make communication better.

Here’s how you can overcome such behavior and improve your listening skills. The main thing to understand is that it’s perfectly all right to not respond with an opinion of your own. If, and when the silent moment comes, just say things like, “that’s interesting;” or “really?” and you’ll see that such responses invariably encourage your companion to open up more and elucidate further on his/her views. Doubtless, your companion’s respect for you will grow as well. Practice this enough, and sooner than later, you’ll be finding it pleasant just to be listening without the thought at the back of your mind that you are required to come up with some kind of response.

I’ll endeavor to learn
Besides learning more in a shorter period of time, this kind of mindset on your part will reward you with another very important thing. When you focus so much on trying to understand the other person’s context, you will often find yourself going down another path altogether from your original premises. You will observe that the conversation may be of a different nature from what you had thought previously. You will be enriched by knowing from others’ experiences rather than always having to base everything on your own context.

I’ll speak with humility
Of course, during conversations, you can’t get by only listening. You will also have to say something now and then. You might have some opinion of your own that you want to communicate. How do you do this in manner that enhances the conversation? Make conscious effort not to say things that give the other person the feeling that you are ‘making your opinion known in no uncertain manner’ or that you are ‘giving advice’, or that you are ‘being preachy’. Certainly, sometimes you’ll have to be plain spoken, but try and minimize this. Rather, ask questions. What sort of questions? Well, ask questions based on what your companion just said. Ask what he/she meant if you are not clear on certain parts of the conversation. This is a strategy that pays rich dividends since it shows that you have been listening well, and equally important, that you are interested in what he/she has been saying. It’s highly flattering for the other person.

At the same time, if you think there’s something you must say that is important, put it forward as a question. Begin by saying things like, “Do you think this will work?” or “Do you agree with this?’ and go on to put your point across. Another very useful tactic is to begin with the sentence, “I may be wrong, but I believe…”, and end with, “What do you think?” These kind of responses really can get the communication flowing. The other person will listen to you more and with greater attention. The conversation will be much more fruitful. n

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