We all communicate with one another, but how well? Does your ability to listen help others to feel like they are being heard? The ability to communicate well is less about talking and more about listening. Hearing is a skill that merits intentional cultivation.
Listening skills make a difference in child development, adult relationships, self-esteem, family functioning, problem solving, learning, and motivation. Some people, even children, seem to be naturally better at listening with empathy than others. This skill is greatly enhanced by good parent-teacher role-modeling, but anyone can cultivate the skills to listen better. Listening skills are just one aspect of communication, but they play a significant role in guiding the conversation. Good overall communication skills are integral to high functioning human relationships.
Communication obviously includes a listener (the receiver) and a speaker (the transmitter). But there's also noise and distractions. And we all have filters that make us hear some things and not others. Good listening requires attention and focus (in contrast to listening to background chatter for working out, cooking, driving, or general recreation and entertainment). A good listener tunes in and is attentive to the speaker. This requires focused energy and interest in what the speaker is saying.
Beyond, simply paying attention, try to wonder how the speaker is feeling. Carl Rogers was the forerunner in the “improve your listening skills” movement which began in the 1960’s. The essence of this type of counseling is called “reflective” or “active” listening. As you listen, try to label the feeling of the speaker. Are they glad, mad, or sad about what they're describing? When the speaker pauses, briefly reflect back to the speaker the essence of what they said and how they felt about it. The listener gives no opinions, judgments, or evaluations of what the speaker said. Instead, the listener offers a chance for the speaker to feel heard.
As a listener, your goal is for the speaker to feel understood and validated. The conversation becomes purposely one-sided, with the goal of purely understanding the speaker and his or her point of view. Your thoughts or reactions are not the point--that can come later. This formula for reflective/active listening is a primary building block for understanding. This deeper listening helps the speaker develop a sense of peace by reducing frustration, anger, and angst. This listening also engages us socially by soothing the speaker via the gift of understanding. Consequently, the speaker typically desires to remain engaged in relationship with the attentive listener. When we feel heard we have validation.
Without the use of reflective listening, a speaker is more likely to escalate emotionally by over-striving to make his/her point and be understood. Thus, reflective listening helps to deter social-emotional explosions or shut-downs. Reflective listening helps avoid the speaker becoming mute, socially disengaging, and withdrawing from the conversation due to misunderstanding or frustration. It also avoids tirades or temper tantrums that can result in emotional and relationship brokenness and exasperation. Thus to avoid these pitfalls of misunderstanding, it is well worth a parent, teacher, spouse, or friend learning to master the art of reflective listening.
Practicing a reflective listening style leads, via the virtue of understanding, to other gifts of the Holy Spirit including joy and peace. These fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit lead to more effective problem solving, improved love of neighbor, and an overall positive chain reaction that affects learning, motivation, and relationship - all stemming from the virtue and gift of understanding through listening.