Updates and Important News(3/21)

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Communication Theory





Listening seems like it should be second nature to all of us. We think we're good listeners, but few of us really are. Learning how to be a better listener, and actually practicing the skill-could be one of the greatest challenges we ever face. It is not an easy skill to learn, but one that is well worth the effort. In this first part of the Interpersonal Communication course, you will learn why listening can be so difficult, and you will have a chance to practice a technique called Active Listening.

Note that the information here doesn't necessarily apply to small talk and simple everyday conversation. We all engage in casual communication while doing other activities. The emphasis we will be placing in this course is on listening as a process that you engage in when the communication is of a high level of importance. For example, a doctor or nurse listening to a patient's complaints. Situations like a businessperson listening to the needs of a client, a student listening to a college lecture, a manager listening to the problems of an employee---situations where it is vitally important that the listener hear the correct information.

Just why is it that good listeners are so hard to find? Well, one reason is that even though listening is the basis of all communication, today's schools hardly even address it. Students aren't taught how to listen. Parents and teachers take listening for granted. They assume everyone can do it. As children, we were told to just sit back and listen. Be quiet. Stop fidgeting. Just be still and listen. Hours and hours go into teaching how to read and write and almost no time at all is spent teaching kids how to listen effectively.

A typical adult spends seventy percent of the day communicating. 45 percent of that time is spent listening. Compared to 30 percent speaking, 16 percent reading, and a mere 9% writing. How is it that something that occupies so much of our time can be so poorly understood? There are three main reasons listening is so difficult:

1. Lack of a conscious decision to listen.

2. Premature judgment.

3. Fear of change.


We don't take the time to remove the distractions that keep us from listening. We don't set aside what we're doing and focus on the person in front of us. Daily life itself presents an endless barrage of sounds: obstacles to clear listening. We continually compete with physical noise. But it's the noise inside our heads that really keeps us from listening. We think about the future. We fantasize about what we'd rather be doing...what we'll have for lunch. Anything but what's really going on in front of us.

It takes tremendous effort to actively focus on the person you're with instead of letting your mind wander. You must consciously dedicate yourself to the task of listening. You have to set aside distractions and actively focus on the person in front of you. This isn't something that can be faked. The person talking to you will see in it your face. All it takes is the simple decision to place your attention on the person who is sitting in front of you talking. Sometimes this isn't possible. You might be too busy or too distracted. If you know you can't give the speaker complete attention, it's better to say, "Can we get together in an hour? I need to finish this one thing and then I can give you my undivided attention." If you take a moment to tune everything out except for the speaker before you, then true listening can take place.


Carl Rogers, the psychologist, said that the snap judgment was the primary barrier to listening. We see a person and size him or her up before we hear a word the person has to say. We tune people out before we even hear what they say based on our preconceived ideas. We think, "this person is too stupid to say anything important, " or "I already know what this person is going to say." We all do this, often without even knowing it. We make up our minds before we give the person a chance. The problem with snap judgments is that they act like slamming doors--any chance of a real conversation is instantly closed.

George Bernard Shaw once remarked, "The only person who behaves sensibly is my tailor. He makes new measurements every time he sees me. All the rest go with the old measurements." We often listen to people through the veil of who they once were. We see through screens that selectively filter out what we want to see. We force fit reality to appear, as we want it to appear. Sometimes we act out of prejudice or bias. People from different cultural backgrounds might be perceived as too different to relate to. It takes a conscious effort to listen to someone different from ourselves. Putting yourself into someone else's shoes, what we call empathy, is one of the hardest parts of becoming a better listener. We often cannot completely stop ourselves from making snap judgments, but what we can do is practice temporarily withholding judgment as we listen. This takes practice and conscious effort, but genuine listening cannot take place without it.


Another reason listening is so difficult is that it opens us up to change and that scares us. The Japanese word for change is NEMAWASHI which literally means transplanting. When we listen, we take a risk that we'll be transplanted-carried off to an unfamiliar place. Opening yourself up to new ideas is always risky. Partly, we are afraid that we will be talked into something we don't want to do. When you think about it, we change as human beings whenever we learn new things. As listening opens the door to learning, we ultimately grow through the process of listening. People hold on to their cherished assumptions so tightly that they feel they cannot afford the luxury of listening to anything that might rock the boat. The only way to deal with this fear of change is to simply recognize that it is there, present in all of us. The best listeners can listen carefully to new or opposing ideas and remain open to the possibility of changing while still retaining their confidence that they can make up their own minds about what to believe. Take the attitude of a scientist conducting an experiment. Observe what is happening, and always remain open to new evidence.


So we see that listening is not as easy as it looks. Not only does it require a certain dedication, it also requires us to withhold our tendency to judge and suspend our fear that we might change as a result of our interaction. Ultimately, the costs of becoming a genuine listener are more than worth the efforts. Listening well is one of the most important skills in Interpersonal Communication; it is certainly a foundation for everything else in this course.

In this course, you will be learning a technique called ACTIVE LISTENING. The process of actively listening was first pioneered by Carl Rogers, a psychotherapist who wanted to explore the idea that a patient might make better progress if the therapist concentrated more on just really listening rather than offering up lots of advice. The theory was that a patient might solve his own problems if given the space to do so. Rogers trained therapists to listen actively, meaning that the therapist needed to demonstrate that genuine listening was taking place. Techniques like paraphrasing were used to prove to the patient that what was said was actually heard. The active listener is summarizing, acknowledging, encouraging the patient as she talks, continuously letting her know, verbally and nonverbally, that the words that are spoken are being listened to with care. Rogers emphasized that the therapist had to be "transparently real," meaning that the process is completely natural and not some "technique" that a professional is applying to a client.

Even though the procedure of active listening was originally used as a therapeutic technique, it can be used by anyone. This is not to say that you should try to be a therapist without training. The important idea is that active listening is a completely natural thing (I don't really like to call it a technique…that makes it sound clinical). We've all experienced the benefits of talking to a someone who is naturally a good listener, and the fact of the matter is that we feel better after talking to that person. Active listening is listening with an honest focus on the other person in which the listener demonstrates that real listening is occurring. In the next sections of the course, you will have an opportunity to see how this works for yourself.

Techniques for Active Listening

Many of us treat listening as a passive activity. We sit back and listen as if we were sponges trying to soak up information. Active listening takes the approach that listening is an activity that you need to do with another. Listening is a process that you actively participate in. Listening is something you engage in with another person, it's not just something that happens to you automatically whenever someone speaks around you. Active listening is a form of listening in which you actively show the listener that you are indeed listening. Active listening can be summarized into seven categories.