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Communication tools

Source: Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace - Managing Mental Health Matters

The way to become a better listener is to practice "active listening". This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.

In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully. You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored, and lose focus on what the other person is saying. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding.

More information on having an effective conversation can be found at:

Following are some specific strategies that have been successful in handling sometimes difficult situations and conversations.

Listening for understanding

Listening for understanding takes place when you are sincerely trying to understand not just what a person says, but rather what they mean. When someone is distressed or dealing with a mental health issue, it is not unusual for them to say things that are not really reflective of what they truly mean. Giving someone the safety and the space to articulate and then clarify or correct what they say means you have a much better chance of understanding their perspective.

Sometimes the content of what we hear will elicit an emotional response in us. As we listen to others, we may be distracted by our own internal chatter that can include judgements, opinions, and reactions to what is being said. When we listen for understanding, we focus on the individual and their agenda, not our own. We listen for underlying issues and needs so that we are better prepared to begin a discussion about solutions.

Distinguishing validation from agreement

Because each person has different needs and views there will always be some conflict in living and working with others. Effective listening can help us better problem-solve and generate solutions that meet more of everyone's needs. Listen first and acknowledge what you hear, even if you don't agree with it, before expressing your point of view.

To acknowledge that someone else's feelings are valid for them, even when we do not feel the same way, allows our communication partner to feel heard and therefore better able to listen. Acknowledging another person's thoughts and feelings still leaves you with all the following options:

  • Agreeing or disagreeing with the person's point of view or actions
  • Saying a request cannot be granted, but you are willing to explore other ways to meet the same need
  • Saying more about the matter being discussed

Communicating without judgement

Often when we are listening to what people are saying, we will have an emotional response and make judgements or assumptions about the intent and meaning of the message. These judgements often lead us to respond in a way that fuels mistrust and conflict. To avoid a potential impasse in difficult conversations, we can:

  • Turn down our internal dialogue and stay focused on what is being said
  • Breathe and neutralize our emotions
  • Listen and acknowledge alternate perspectives
  • Move from judgement to curiosity by asking questions to gain better understanding
  • State your observations and experience using specific examples
  • State your perspective, needs and desires
  • Reframe the problem into a mutual, objective statement.

Active listening

To enhance your listening skills, you need to let the other person know that you are listening to what he or she is saying. Acknowledgement can be something as simple as a nod of the head or a simple "uh huh." You aren't necessarily agreeing with the person, you are simply indicating that you are listening. Using body language and other signs to acknowledge you are listening also reminds you to pay attention and not let your mind wander.

You should also try to respond to the speaker in a way that will both encourage him or her to continue speaking, so that you can get the information if you need. While nodding and "uh huhing" says you're interested, an occasional question or comment to recap what has been said communicates that you understand the message as well.

There are five key elements of active listening. They all help you ensure that you hear the other person, and that the other person knows you are hearing what they say.

1. Pay attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also "speaks" loudly.

  • Look at the speaker directly.
  • Put aside distracting thoughts. Don't mentally prepare a rebuttal!
  • Avoid being distracted by environmental factors.
  • "Listen" to the speaker's body language.

2. Show that you are listening

Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention.

  • Nod occasionally.
  • Smile and use other appropriate facial expressions.
  • Note your posture and make sure it is open and inviting.
  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, and uh huh.

3. Provide feedback

Our personal filters, assumptions, judgements, and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions.

  • Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. "What I'm hearing is." and "Sounds like you are saying." are great ways to reflect back.
  • Ask questions to clarify certain points. "What do you mean when you say." "Is this what you mean?"
  • Summarize the speaker's comments periodically.
  • If you find yourself responding emotionally to what someone said, say so, and ask for more information: "I may misunderstood you. What I thought you just said is XXX; is that what you meant?"

4. Defer judgement

Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.

  • Allow the speaker to finish.
  • Don't interrupt with counter arguments.

5. Respond appropriately

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting him or her down.

  • Be candid, tactful, open, and honest in your response.
  • Assert your opinions respectfully.
  • Treat the other person as he or she would want to be treated.

It takes concentration and determination to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break, and if your listening habits need to improve, you need to work on them!

Be deliberate with your listening and remind yourself frequently that your goal is to truly hear what the other person is saying. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviours and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure you understand the message. If you don't, then you'll find that what someone says to you and what you hear can be amazingly different!

Use active listening to become a more effective communicator and develop better workplace relationships.

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