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Listening Attentively

Tony Alessandra

Have you ever been to a dinner party where you sensed the talk wasn't really a conversation as much as a series of monologues? First, somebody tells about their vacation, and maybe a dutiful but shallow question or two is asked. Then somebody else brags about his kid getting into medical school, which leads another guest to talk about her own college days. On and on it goes, while eyes wander and heads occasionally nod between bites of quiche and sips of French Colombard.

You get the impression no one is really listening. Rather, they're just rehearsing what they might say. Maybe they're thinking about how to sound good, how strongly to make their points, or how to outshine the others. As a result, by evening's end, everyone will have talked-but people really won't have communicated much or gotten to know each other very well.

Unfortunately, many of our everyday conversations are like that, too. While we hear, we only pretend to listen. Listening doesn't just mean shutting up while someone else speaks-though that's a start. ("A good listener is a good talker with a sore throat," one English wit said.)

But listening-real listening-takes more work than that. It's more than the physical process of hearing. It also takes intellectual and emotional effort. To get a full appreciation of the other person and what's being said, you need to ask questions, give feedback, remain objective, figure out what's really being said and what's not being said, and observe and interpret body language.

As Matthew McKay and Martha Davis say in their book, How to Communicate, "Listening is a commitment and a compliment. It's a commitment to understanding how other people feel, how they see their world" and it's "a compliment because it says to the other person: 'I care about what's happening to you, your life and your experience are important.'"

When you want to win someone's attention and gain his or her confidence, listening is just as important as speaking. Good listening draws people to you; poor listening causes them to drift away.

Here are some ideas on ways to make active listening easier for you:

1. Listen-really listen-to one person for one day. Choose one person you could relate to better. Commit to listening to them-not just hearing them-for one day. Once you've gotten into this habit of nudging yourself to listen better, extend this exercise to successive days, then to other acquaintances as well.

2. Create a receptive listening environment. Turn off the TV. Hold your calls. Put away your spread sheets and silence your computer. When listening, forget about clipping your nails, crocheting, solving crossword puzzles, or snapping your chewing gum.

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