We may think of listening as something that requires no thought or effort, but there is a vast difference between hearing someone and actually listening to him. While it's natural for a person to daydream or think of a rebuttal while someone else is speaking, doing so can result in strained relationships, failure to absorb important information and a general disconnect between people who are trying to work toward common goals. This is why active listening is important and why we're often told that there's a reason we each have one mouth and two ears.
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Active listening requires more than just focusing on spoken words; the listener must be responsive to the speaker and aware of her body language. By making direct eye contact through relaxed body posture, we comfort the speaker through calm attentiveness. As he speaks, it's essential to repeat important points back to him, as this ensures mutual understanding. Yet, truly active listening requires acknowledgement of the speaker's feelings, too. If she becomes tearful during conversation, an active listener will note this when reiterating her important points---"You're upset that upper management has ignored your complaints." Use of these listening skills is important in many areas of life.
According to Andrew G. Marshall, therapist and author of "I Love You, But I'm Not in Love with You," arguments are part of healthy relationships and better than no communication at all. In friendships and marriages alike, people will disagree and even hurt each other unknowingly. While arguments will bring these issues to light, it is active listening that helps each person understand the other person's viewpoint, which smooths the road toward conflict resolution.
Careers and Leadership
Active listening is a critical component of most, if not all, professions. Health care providers and mental health practitioners rely on listening skills for properly diagnosing and treating conditions. All customer-oriented professions, be it sales or services, benefit from active listening skills, as it promotes customer satisfaction. Perhaps most important, active listening between employees and upper management helps a company address barriers to productivity and reduce stress in the work environment. Professional and upper management leadership roles are reinforced when they show genuine care and concern for customers and employees.
Although the best lessons come from firsthand experience, one lifetime is not long enough to learn everything we can benefit from knowing. But we can and do learn from the many experiences and teachings of others, that is, if we listen. By actively listening to educators in the classroom, students are better prepared for exams and can ask questions when details are unclear. Likewise, listening to students can help an educator identify problem areas within his teachings and adapt his approaches for the students' benefit. Listening for education extends outside of the classroom, though.
Barriers to active listening will override the benefits of conversation and can be disastrous in sensitive situations, notably crisis intervention. According to Suicide and Mental Health Association International, barriers include passing judgment on the speaker, making assumptions about what's being said, hearing only what we want to hear, fear of adopting the other person's thoughts and talking too much. Our own emotions can also become barriers. To improve listening skills, it's sometimes helpful to role play with a partner and to acknowledge personal barriers as they arise.
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