In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey points out that we should “Seek first to understand – then to be understood.” I believe that to be a timeless truth – because one of our basic human needs is to understand and to be understood. Therefore, I submit the best way to understand people is to actively and empathically listen to what they are saying. Let’s face it – good listening skills help us understand the other person’s point of view.
When people talk to one another, there is always a speaker and a listener. I hope it does not come as a shock to you that listening means more than hearing what someone is saying. While the other person is speaking, you may be thinking about where you’re going for lunch, a project deadline, or thinking of saying “hurry up and say what you have to say, so that I can tell you what’s really on my mind.” Heaven forbid if you just stopped listening and tuned completely out. This would not be in your best interest or the best interest of the speaker, for obvious reasons.
So – Why is active and effective listening important? The simple answer is this: It helps us fully understand what others are saying, while at the same time letting others know if we received their message clearly.
Setting the stage for active and effective listening requires empathy.
Empathy: The ability to understand other people’s feelings
In order to be a good and active listener, you must have empathy for the person who is speaking, because empathy is about openness and about considering the other person’s point of view. How would you think and feel if you were in the same situation and had the same life experiences as the person speaking?
Empathy is not something you can fake. In order to empathize, you really have to develop an interest in other people and in finding their connection to you. Then, listen to them very carefully.
Remember this: Effective interpersonal communication requires a sender and a receiver.
The Sender is the speaker, who sends the message, and the Receiver is the listener, who receives it. Imagine someone trying to put spare change into a jar with a closed lid. The coins would be lost as they scattered all over the floor. If you think of the listener as the lid of the jar, and the message being sent as the coins, then it’s easy to see how important it is to be open when you listen, and seek first to understand – then to be understood.