By Dick Mooney
Good support group leaders have to be effective listeners. The problem is that we all have spent years in school and in public speaking workshops learning to speak effectively, but probably none of our teachers has ever taken the time to teach us to listen effectively. Effective listening is hard work. This article may help.
Why Listening is Important – As support group leaders we are almost exclusively in the business of communicating. We communicate with our members, both individually and in groups. We communicate with a wide variety of health care professionals and individuals at other disability-related organizations to promote our program and further the goals of our group. We communicate with people who are good communicators and those who are poor communicators. We communicate with those who are calm and self-assured and with those who are suffering the emotional distress of a new disability.
Let me ask you this; who controls a communication, the sender or receiver? I think the receiver–the listener–does.
Look at it this way: Communication, at its most basic, has at least three essential parts–sending, receiving, and gaining understanding. Many communications have a fourth part, taking resulting action, because a communication directed toward understanding alone has only educational or philosophical value. In the support group business, however, we work with boards of directors and many others who we expect to take some action as a result of our communicating with them. So let’s say communication has four parts.
Now, the question is, who’s in control of these four parts?
It’s probably obvious that the sender controls sending and the receiver controls receiving. That’s one point for each. Who controls gaining understanding? Understanding is in the head of the receiver. Senders can do everything possible to transmit a clear picture of what they’re trying to communicate, but only receivers can understand if they choose to and are able to. So far, that’s two points for receiving, and one for sending.
Who’s in control of taking resulting action? Again, it’s the receiver. When we give an instruction or an assignment, or persuade others to do the support group work that has to be done, the receiver not only has to understand what we want done, but has to do it as well. When we ask for information so we can take action, we’re the receiver of the answer. So, in that case, we have to understand and take action.
That’s three points for receiving and only one for sending. If you buy my logic, then, you’ll agree that the listener is in control of communications, not the speaker. That’s another way of saying the listener communicates.
Why don’t we listen as efficiently as we speak? As mentioned earlier, one reason is that most of us aren’t trained listeners. Some experts believe that only five to ten percent of us have ever had training in listening.
Another reason is that we tend to treat sending as an active skill and listening as a passive one. We’ve all found through experience that bad habits in sending can’t be hidden. We know, for example, that if we don’t involve ourselves actively in sending, we can’t be understood, even by a trained listener. At those times, we’re “not articulate,” it’s said. But basically, listening doesn’t involve the same kind of physical activity as sending, and therefore, our bad listening habits can easily be hidden. Thus, it’s easy for us to become lazy listeners, let our minds wander elsewhere, or succumb to another of the many inefficient listening behaviors.
Why else should we be concerned with our listening skills? There are several good reasons.
- We need information to do our job. Leaders need to have reliable information to perform all of the functions of planning, organizing, controlling, and directing support group activities. Indeed, information is power, without which we simply can’t function effectively. Much of the information we need comes to us in verbal form. Using appropriate listening behaviors allows us to understand and assimilate this information.
- We need access to new ideas. Conscientious and progressive leaders need to understand the ideas of others to sharpen their own thinking and understanding of their role as leaders, to make effective decisions and to improve their own and their group’s performance.
- Our leadership role requires us to interact effectively with our members. As leaders, we need to listen carefully to our members. We need their input for our decisions. To make sure everything is under control, we need to know what others in the group are doing. We need to provide support and encouragement. We need to deal with members’ complaints, grievances and sometimes their interpersonal problems. And we need to show them the respect that only attentive listening can show. Our members and others on the Board don’t always want us to agree with them, but they do want us to listen to them. If we don’t, they will find someone else who will.
- We need to gain and keep the goodwill and cooperation of others. By definition, leaders of support groups get things done through the efforts of others; volunteers, Board members, community members, and donors. Without goodwill and cooperation, we have few remaining tools that will be as effective at motivating others to pull together toward common goals. Listening, with the understanding and respect it brings, helps to gain that cooperative spirit. Respectful listening promotes respectful listening. We want the people to listen when we have something to say. What better way is there than listening when they have something to say?
One way to start being a better listener is to understand some of the barriers to good communications.
The Loss of Concentration Barrier: Others speak, and we have become used to listening to them, at 125 to 150 words per minute. But our brains are capable of comprehending much faster–on the order of 650 to 700 words per minute. Since it’s impossible for us to slow down our thinking speed, we tend to fill in the spaces with thoughts that are unrelated to the words being spoken to us. We think of what we’re going to say next or we think about some irrelevant aspect of the speaker’s message, such as his or her accent, for example. Worse yet, if the speaker’s boring, we think about where we’d rather be than where we are!
How to Break the Loss of Concentration Barrier: We need to practice discipline in using our spare thinking time to try to really understand what the speaker is saying. Here are a few ideas.
1. Think ahead of the speaker. Where is this leading? What conclusions can be drawn from what is being said at this moment?
2. Weigh the evidence. Does what is being said make sense? Are the speaker’s opinions logical? Are they supported by fact?
3. Periodically review and summarize. Do I have it straight?
4. Listen between the lines. Are the words and the body language consistent? Are the content and the emotion in harmony?
5. Catalog the content by key words. Attach a key word to each idea and try to build an outline of the whole communication. This won’t only help us listen better, it will also help us remember better.
The Distraction Barrier: Distractions can be either external or internal. External distractions are such things as traffic noise or people whispering elsewhere in the room. Internal distractions involve extraneous thoughts that come into our mind that get in the way of our giving 100% attention to the speaker.
How to Break the Distraction Barrier:
1. Physically stop the noise if possible.
2. Take notes. It’s hard not to concentrate if you’re taking notes.
3. Assume an attentive posture. Lean forward. Hold eye contact.
The Lack of Time Barrier: Because we all have lives outside our support groups, we have to limit the time we make available for participating in Board meetings, discussing things with and directing volunteers, counseling with and gathering information from members, and conducting group meetings. When these activities fail to run on a reasonable schedule, maybe because discussions are simply more active than we expected or, worse, too much time is taken up by folks who try to interrupt or dominate our time, our concentration can break and interfere with our listening.
How to Break the Lack of Time Barrier: There are two basic solutions to the lack of time problem. One is to make time, and the other is to learn how to turn people off assertively.
1. We can decide to “make time” if we deem that the need is important enough. The important point is that when we decide to make time, we promise not only our time, but our attention as well. To help us make good on this promise and be an effective listener, it helps if we set aside a specific number of minutes and then hold to that schedule. If we don’t, we’ll become impatient, think about what else we have to do, and lose our concentration.
2. When there’s no more time that can be allocated to listen, we should deal with the situation assertively and politely, but firmly. We should make clear that we’re out of time and that the conversation will have to terminate. A time can be set to continue or not, as the circumstances dictate. The alternative is that our attention will be diverted to other matters and the remainder of the encounter may end up being a waste of time for everyone.
The Blackout Barrier: Listening blackout can have several causes but they all have the same result; we just stop listening. One cause can be anger or embarrassment at something someone says. Someone else’s anger or emotionalism can also cause us to black out through empathy or concern . At times we may be able to continue to listen but our perception of the speaker or the message may be negatively influenced.
How to Break the Blackout Barrier:
1. Identify words, phrases, or situations that cause us to black out. Try to rationalize this by figuring out why we react as we do. It may be helpful to discuss this with a friend or colleague we trust.
2. Be open and honest on a real-time basis and reveal what we’re feeling. “I feel myself getting angry about . . .” or “I feel myself feeling very uncomfortable about . . . . Maybe we should take a short time-out.”
The Really Complicated Message Barrier: Sometimes, no matter how well we listen we get the message garbled or just don’t get the point at all. This can be because the message really is complicated or because the person is simply unable to explain well.
How to Break the Really Complicated Message Barrier:
1. Use a technique called “Reflective Listening.” We do this by stopping the speaker periodically and repeating the message as we understand it. We encourage the speaker to straighten us out if we don’t get it right. This is easy to do if we use statements like, “Wait a minute. Let me see if I’m getting this right” or “What I think I am hearing is . . . ”
Active Listening – Called “active” listening, or sometimes “empathetic” listening, this kind of listening is more than just reflecting. It’s called “active” because the listener has a very specific responsibility–not merely to absorb passively the words that are spoken, but actively to try and grasp the meaning and the feeling in what is heard. Active listening is a way to listen for feelings. It’s a very powerful tool for dealing with emotion laden situations and troubled members, and is designed to help them work out their own problems.
Because the goal of active listening is to let others discover their own solutions, an important advantage of the technique is that it allows us as leaders, coaches, and counselors to avoid getting caught up in the problem-solving games that people sometimes like to play. I’m sure we’ve all known and been victimized (and infuriated) by members who trap us into endlessly suggesting unacceptable solutions to their problems. It goes like this:
“My leg just doesn’t fit right and I keep getting sores on my stump.”
“You should discuss this with your prosthetist.”
“I have, and he says the socket is right–It’s just my skin.”
“Maybe you should see a dermatologist.”
“I have, and he has given me some salve that doesn’t help.”
“Have you told him this?”
“Yes. He says to give it time.”
“Do you wash your stump socks regularly?”
“Yes. Every day.”
. . . . and on, and on, and on. By the time we discover that the person wants our attention more than our help, we’ve already spent more time than we should on a problem that was designed not to have a solution.
How much better might the interchange have been if we used active listening?
“My leg just doesn’t fit right and I keep getting sores on my stump.”
“Gee, that must be terrible for you.”
“Yes, it’s a real problem.”
“I can see that it might be.”
“I guess I’ll just have to keep working to find a solution.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
Another common situation where active listening can help is when an obviously distressed member comes out of left field with a statement like, “Sometimes I feel like it’s just not worth going on.” When this occurs in an open meeting, one can counter with an empathetic response such as, “I can see you are really distressed by this. Can we get together after the meeting and talk about it?” When we have the chance to communicate with emotional people one to one, we can more fully employ the following active listening concepts.
The objective of active listening is for the listener to get inside the speaker’s head and grasp, from the speaker’s point of view, what is being communicated.
To do this, the listener must listen for total meaning. Are emotion laden words being used? Are normally unemotional words being used emotionally? Do the speaker’s tone and voice level convey a meaning separate from the words? Does body language, such as hand gestures, eye movements, facial expressions, or breathing, communicate its own message?
The listener’s challenge is to perceive the message from the sender’s viewpoint. This isn’t easy. It not only requires the identification and overriding of the listener’s own biases, which may negatively affect how the message is being received, but it requires the listener to understand the speaker’s biases and use that knowledge to enhance understanding.
To keep the communication going and encourage the speaker to “talk it out,” the listener must avoid comments that “threaten” the speaker’s point of view. Generally, any listening behavior that tries to change the speaker’s viewpoint, such as any attempt to get them to “see it our way,” is likely to become a threat and stifle communication. But as the following paragraphs show, other, seemingly harmless, response patterns can stifle communications, too.
Judging – It’s easy to see that negative judgments such as, “You’re wrong to feel that way” can be threatening. But even positive judgments can imply that the listener is in some way qualified to pass judgment on the speaker’s thoughts and ideas, and can therefore inhibit the communication’s free flow. Remember, in these circumstances, non-judgmental responses that simply send the message that the speaker is being heard, are the safest.
Analyzing – An analyzing response such as, “The real problem here is that you take things much too seriously” can be a roadblock for two reasons. First, the analysis may not be correct, in which case it’s likely to anger or at least confuse the sender. Second, even if the analysis is accurate, it contradicts the major purpose of this kind of listening, which is to let the speaker work out his or her own problem.
Questioning – Questioning is such a natural and useful way to gather more information and our questioning habits are so well established that questioning is a behavior that is almost impossible for the typical leader to avoid. But to emotional people, such as members with problems, questions can easily be perceived as a manipulative strategy or a tool to direct the interview. Avoid questioning if possible.
Supporting – At first thought, supportive comments might seem like a good idea, especially if the speaker seems to need encouragement. But the danger in trying to be supportive is that telling an obviously upset member that “everything is all right” when they know perfectly well that everything is not all right, is no help at all. Worse, supportive comments can send the message that the speaker isn’t really being listened to, or that their problems aren’t being taken seriously.
If these apparently logical and normal responses aren’t appropriate, then what kind of responses are? Generally, the listener’s only objective should be to select responses that say “I hear you,” “I’m interested in what you’re saying,” and “I’m interested in you as a person.” Almost any response that imparts those ideas is a good one.
For example, a simple interpretive statement, such as, “This is really getting to you, isn’t it;” or, “It sounds like you’ve really had it,” is often useful, not only to express empathy, but to signify that the message is, indeed, getting through.
A mirroring statement–a very brief synopsis of what was just said–is usually an easy and non-threatening way to keep the conversation going. “You say you’re having trouble getting along with your prosthetist,” is appropriately neutral and may keep the speaker moving along.
Sometimes silence can be the most effective rejoinder of all, since, judiciously used, it can gently press the person to keep talking.
Finally, it’s important to realize that active listening is not a formula or gimmick method, nor can it be learned effectively from the few words of illustration on these pages. Neither is it a method that is appropriate for every case, nor one for which a leader would always be willing or able to take the necessary time. However, active listening is a powerful technique that all effective support group leaders should have in their arsenal of interpersonal skills.