The importance of listening extends far beyond academic and professional settings. Understanding how to practice good communication even in your day to day life, among friends, family, and significant others, is important for a number of reasons: fostering good self-esteem, maximizing productivity, improving relationships, and even becoming a better speaker.
It’s easy to mistake listening as a simple, passive task, but it requires more than just the ability to absorb information from someone else. Listening is a process, and an active one.
In this guide, we’ll go over the stages that compose the listening process, and the importance each one plays in your ability to communicate effectively with others.
The Five Steps to Better Listening
The listening process can be broken up into five distinct stages: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding. This is the model most commonly referred to when analyzing good communication, because it helps isolate the necessary skills required at each individual step in the process.
The most important thing to keep in mind though is that listening is, indeed, a process, and one that requires effort. Once you understand how each part makes up the whole, you’ll come out a better thinker, listener, speaker, and communicator. Let’s begin.
This is the first and most basic stage of the listening process: the act of actually absorbing the information being expressed to you, whether verbally or non-verbally. Not all communication is done through speech, and not all listening is done with ears.
No matter how you’re communicating with another person, the key at this stage is to pay attention. Focus all of your energy on them, by following these three simple tips:
- Avoid distractions. This is obvious. Don’t have your cellphone out, or your iPod in, or the television on. Don’t try to divide your attention between the speaker and something else. You might think you’re good at multi-tasking, and perhaps you are, but demonstrating a commitment to the act of listening will make you a more respected person among your peers.
- Don’t interrupt the speaker. You might want to make an assumption about what the speaker is saying, or what they’re about to say – don’t. It’s rude, and you may find your assumption was wrong, which is beneficial to no one. You can, however, practice nonverbal feedback cue, such as nodding, to demonstrate your attention.
- Don’t rehearse your response. Not yet. At this stage, your job is only to listen. If you start to plan a speech while the other person is speaking, you’re going to miss certain points and not be able to respond to their larger message when it’s your turn to talk.
This is the point in the listening process where you’re able to plan your response. Understanding takes place after you’ve received the information from the speaker, and begin to process its meaning.
You can do this by asking questions, or rephrasing parts of the speaker’s message. This allows you to demonstrate your active engagement with their words, and help you better understand their key points.
What good would it do in a conversation if you forgot everything the speaker had just said? This stage of the listening process might seem very similar to the first two, but it goes beyond merely absorbing and processing information.
Remembering is about retaining that information, and the most effective way to do so in an important conversation is to move the key elements of a message from your short-term memory, and into your long-term memory.
There are numerous methods for doing this:
- Identify the fundamental points. By converting a collection of small details into a central theme, you’re able to create something potentially complicated into an easy-to-grasp general concept. The details will remain in your short-term memory, but isolating the main ideas will help you understand them better, and remember them longer.
- Make the message familiar. Relate that main idea to something you already know. This should be easy to do – there aren’t many new ideas out there, and chances are the discussion you’re having will trigger old memories and past experiences. Use those to help you retain incoming information.
It’s at this stage where you can begin to prepare for your response, but remember: you’re still a listener, not a speaker. After the message has been absorbed, processed, and remembered, you can begin to sort the information into pieces.
- What is fact, and what is opinion?
- Was the speaker demonstrating any particular prejudice with their message?
- What portions of the message, if any, were exaggerated?
- What parts of their message were interpreted, and which parts were unbiased?
- What was the speaker’s intent with their message?
After interpreting the speaker’s message, through a combination of understanding, retention, and evaluation, you’re ready to form a response.
If you’ve completed the receiving, understanding, remembering, and evaluating portions of the listening process, responding should be easier than ever. You’ll be prepared to address the speaker’s most important points, with an awareness of the circumstances and context surrounding their words.
It’s important to understand the transition between listening and speaking though, and be aware of the ways responding is still a part of the active listening process.
- Don’t complete the speaker’s sentences. This is a presumptuous and rude way to segue into your own response. It impedes on the receiving process, and will make the original speaker want to listen to you less.
- Address the speaker’s points. It will make it easier for the speaker to transition into a listener when they know exactly what part of their message you’re addressing.
While each stage seems like a lengthy process, this all happens in a very short amount of time, and should feel natural during a conversation. All you’re doing by practicing these tips is making yourself more conscious of the way you communicate, and the bad habits you should avoid in the listening process.
Listening is the most important part of communication, because if you fail to understand the message being expressed to you, you will also fail in providing a substantial and meaningful response. This is the root cause of many arguments, misunderstandings, and complications, whether at home, school, or work.
Being able to take control of the listening process will turn you into a better communicator, overall. For further improvement, try out this course on how conversations work, and the key strategies involved in making them more effective.