Last week’s blog post asked readers to “weigh in” on the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule, and the Platinum Rule was the clear winner. Readers made comments on the importance of this subject of communication, and expressed its importance to teamwork. Thanks to all of you who took your time to record your thoughts. Other bloggers know how valuable comments are! One reader mentioned the importance of nonverbal communication, the subject of this week’s discussion.
The largest category of nonverbal communication is body language, which includes listening, facial expression, eye contact, body posture, gestures, and distance. Most of you can visualize an angry person’s body language, as well as the body language of one whose behavior is reflective of someone who is pleasant, open and receptive. If we were having a verbal conversation, you could describe the exact nonverbal behaviors of these two different people. Therefore, I won’t go into detail on each of these. I will focus on the one behavior that often determines whether our behavior in general is perceived as positive or negative by others. That one behavior is listening. Now I recognize that most of us think we know how to listen well, when in fact, too often our behavior is reflective of not listening at all, but telling the other person what we want them to know! The three types of listening are passive, selective, and active. A few descriptive comments about each differentiates these types.
Passive listeners are not engaged in what the other person is saying, either verbally or nonverbally. With passive listeners there really is no conversation, for they do not make comments, ask questions, or clarify, or if they do, it is only when the other person is totally finished talking. Now, do not mistake this for good listening, thinking that to comment, ask questions, or clarify is interrupting. It can be interrupting, which can be so skillfully done that it is positive, not negative. Also, the nonverbal behavior of the passive listener can range from disinterest to anger, and other negative behaviors that are not as extreme.
Selective listeners zero in on part of the message being delivered, focusing on some details and often missing the main message. Selective listeners can be perceived as debating, not listening at all. They may listen for facts and logic, failing to capture the feelings being expressed. Feelings are as important as facts, and they are not always verbally disclosed.
Active listeners are engaged in hearing what is being said as well as what isn’t being said, but that which is also involved. Active listeners listen for feelings as well as facts. Active listeners are skilled at asking questions, clarifying, and summarizing. They listen for the main idea(s) and separate details that aren’t important from those that are. The body language of the active listener shows respect, interest and receptivity.
We can assume that active listening is the best type of listening, and should strive to make sure there is consistency between our verbal and nonverbal behavior. But active listening alone does not insure that we will be perceived as being an effective listener. There are some behaviors to avoid when we are actively listening. These behaviors are Avoiding, Judging, and Solving.
Avoiding is failing to verbally address the parts of the message that make us uncomfortable. An example of this is the friend who is verbalizing what they interpret as facts that are not really facts, but instead are feelings. The receiver of these “facts” may fail to discuss their interpretation of these, perhaps to “keep the peace.” The receiver may think she can avoid further conflict by not addressing this difference, although often this choice results in unexpressed conflict, which is covert conflict. Covert conflict may seem preferable to overt conflict, but it really isn’t, usually at least. There will still be a barrier in these friends’ relationship.
Judging is verbally and inappropriately evaluating what is being heard. An example is a phrase such as, “I don’t think you really mean that, what you are really mean is that you don’t believe me!” Most people do not want to feel judged when they are telling another person something; they want the message they are trying to deliver to be heard and, hopefully at least, understood. Judging makes the relationship feel inappropriately unequal, putting the receiver of the message in the position of power.
Solving is jumping too quickly to solutions, taking the focus away from the speaker. Solving can be thought of as an extension of Judging, with the same negative consequences. Solving isn’t collaborative, it is felt as “top down.” When the speaker has the goal of being heard, solving becomes a distraction from that. Parents of small children often have a legitimate reason for using “solving” language. In some situations managers have a legitimate reason to use solving language when in conversation with their direct reports. For most other situations, solving responses are less than effective.
Effective listening is such an important communication skill. For many people, it isn’t easy, although too often it is thought of as such. Effective listening requires focus and practice. It also requires knowledge of the specifics discussed in this post. I am interested in your thoughts about this, and your listening successes!