Effective communication starts with being an intentional or active listener

By Lesli Dullum-Tutterrow

We all share something in common: the gift of our human brain that allows us to think and articulate thoughts in ways that other mammals cannot. If my dog needs to go outside, she sits by the door and whines — she and I both know exactly what that means. (If communication were only that simple for we humans.)

At home and in the workplace, communication can feel challenging depending on who we are speaking with and how important the conversation is. How can we know if we are hitting the mark in our quest to communicate effectively? Let’s break communication down to some basics. Communication can be verbal or non-verbal. Non-verbals say a lot without saying anything at all. Many husbands describe “the look” that their wives use to communicate their dissatisfaction. It has been stated that 55 percent of our communication is non-verbal, 38 perceent is our tone or inflection, and 7 percent is our words.

If all three of these are not congruent, we may be sending what is commonly referred to as mixed messages. Many people think communication begins with words. Effective communication however starts with being an intentional, or active listener. This sounds simple, however many of us have been led to believe that listening is a passive event.

Listening to really hear the other person’s message involves an intentional mindset.

Start by asking yourself, is this a time I am able to be fully present? Too many of us have practiced trying to hear someone while we are doing something else. This often results in the other person feeling devalued, disrespected or disconnected. Additionally, this creates a greater likelihood of missing vital information and inviting misunderstandings.

Put your phone or computer down and look up! If you cannot be available for someone who needs your attention, give them the gift of asking if they can wait, and tell them when you will be available. This sounds like “ I cannot give you my full presence right now, would it work for you if we talk at noon?”

After you practice cultivating active listening, you might begin to incorporate reflective listening. Reflecting back lets someone know that they have been heard. Since we all have the basic need to feel heard, reflective listening is a handy way to ensure the intended message of the speaker has been delivered accurately. This sounds like, “ So I am hearing that you like the idea of doing … is that right?”

This is a simple way to get two or more people on the same page as well as enhancing the relationship assuming your words, body language and tone all match.

Other ways we sabotage communication:

We have an agenda — Often communication is sabotaged because we have an opinion, idea, or concept we want to move forward. This agenda makes us more prone to impatience rather than curiosity when listening to others.

We are too busy and distracted — good communication requires some inconvenience. It necessitates that we slow down, look in someone’s eyes, and look and listen for both the spoken and unspoken part of someone’s message.

Most of us have not experienced truly effective communication. In the absence of seeing what this consistently looks like, we tend to adopt the communication style that we were raised with or the bad habits we’ve adopted.

The path to more effective communication

• Know your intentions and keep the relationship in focus — ask yourself before you speak, “what is my desired outcome from this conversation? How can this interaction enhance my relationship?”

• Practice learning to communicate whole messages — Partial messages leave our listener guessing as to what we want. Simply stating “I’m hungry” does not tell me you want to go out to lunch.

• Take responsibility for how you communicate — Start sentences with “I” rather than “you.” Begin with “I observe, I think, or I feel…”

This keeps us from blaming or attacking, and helps the conversation stay topic centric increasing the likelihood we won’t be met with defensiveness. Stay focused only on one topic at a time.

Communication is the lifeblood of relationships, both personal and professional. If you’re feeling curious and courageous today, ask your spouse or kids how they would rate your ability to listen. Ask those who work the closest with you if they feel heard by you more often than not? This is a great place to start improving relationships as you actively listen to their answers.

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