How Active is Our Listening?

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He/she who hath ears to hear, let him/her hear what the spirit sayeth...

How Active Is Our Listening?

A diagram of the human ear.

No, don't run away. I'm not going to talk psychobabble at you.

I'm not going to get into CorporateSpeak(TM), either. That's Vogon territory. What I wanted to talk about was how we could learn to use active listening techniques in a virtual environment.

Hey, what's this active listening stuff? I hear the Prof asking. I'm very active, me. Yes, Prof, you are. We all are, and we talk up a storm, so I thought we might look at a website on cross-cultural communications.

Stop that. Come back here! You may not be interested in cross-cultural communications, but you do it all the time, like it or not, if you're talking on the web. You talk to people who (gasp) aren't exactly like you. Nothing wrong with that, and no law against it, either. It just might be a good idea to do it better.

Oh, I'm an expert at it, I hear you saying. Oh, good. But just in case somebody out there is listening in and wondering, here are a few thoughts on the subject.

What Is Active Listening?

A couple of weeks ago, you might remember, I mentioned Project Implicit, the Harvard study in unconscious prejudices. Now that you're all armed with self-knowledge, the next step is figuring out how to communicate with all those other people out there. The ones who aren't like you. Believe it or not, there's an art to listening besides 'turn off the radio when I'm talking to you'. And you guessed it, there are people who study these things, and know way more about it than I do. I think they might have something we can use.

No, you still don't have to listen to psychobabble. You just have to listen to what other people say.

But I do, I hear you saying. I listen to all that drivel. Which is why I know the other person is an idiot who probably watches all the wrong TV shows. Aha. That's not active listening.

Active listening, according to the University of Colorado at Boulder, is 'a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.' Oh, mutual. Now he tells us. Yep. If you clicked on that link, you saw why Boulder is interested in actively listening. Those folks are dealing with 'intractable conflict'. No, not the running battle you're having with your in-laws. Think Bosnia or Iraq. Now, if active listening could help stop wars, it could sure help your online communication.

Let me at it. How do I start?

I Hear What You're Saying

Er, no, I don't.

I threw in that lame header because us old folks remember – and cringe when we do – how people in the 1970s kept 'exploring their feelings'. They made a lot of mistakes (and came to blows at times, which was often entertaining, but seldom productive). One of their biggest mistakes was going around saying 'I hear what you're saying' when they didn't mean it.

So how do we listen? I don't want to steal any thunder from that website I linked to. They're the pros, and they have lots of cool info for you. But here's a short rundown from me – my checklist of active listening techniques as applied to an online conversation:

  • Focus your attention on the speaker. That means, read the post. Carefully. More than once, if necessary. (It's okay to move your lips unless it makes your cat laugh.) Be sure you're reading what the other person wrote, and not what you think they wrote.
  • If you don't understand a reference, ask. Ask nicely. Ask neutrally. Don't say things like 'why in H would you expect me to know all about your crummy culture, you dreadful Foreigner?' Amazingly, you might learn something that was interesting. (Miracles do happen.)
  • Here comes the hard part: set aside your prejudices. Hear yourself thinking, I know [username here], they're going to go on about X again. Hear yourself doing that, and then STOP doing that. Listen to what is said. If you don't understand, scroll up (ask a question).
  • Be aware. Acknowledge the other point of view. Encourage the other poster to develop their thought. Don't jump in with a reply, retort, or witty rejoinder right off the bat (unless it's somebody you know who expects this from you).
  • Listen for the emotional subtext. When we talk verbally, those of us whose hearing aids are working today listen for clues in the tone of voice. Those of us whose spectacles/contacts/retinal implants permit watch for body language. How do we do this online? Er, why do you think h2g2 has what must be the world's largest smiley collection1?
  • Be involved. See the convo as a mutual exploration, rather than a debate. Respect your interlocutor, even if you disagree with the viewpoint.
  • Listen more than you speak. That doesn't mean, don't post. But don't bury the other person in your verbiage when you reply. This goes double for emails.

A hearing aid inside an ear.

Rather than assuming that the purpose of a conversation is to a) win, b) get the other person to make a mistake, and win, c) prove the other person is an idiot, and win, or d) turn all the attention on ourselves, and win, we should try thinking 'what do I really want here?' We might be surprised to find out that 'win' wasn't part of our answer.

Anyway, active listening is a cost-free exercise. It's also a sneaky one. If you don't go around using psychobabble, the other person won't even notice you're doing it. They'll just think you're a darn nice person to talk to.

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni

As they say in West Philadelphia, happy conversating!

Dmitri Gheorgheni

06.02.12 Front Page

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1What emotional state is indicated by the smiley - popcorn smiley has yet to be determined. (Carl Rogers Institute, take note.)

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