Did you ever have someone call you out because you weren’t listening to them? Have you ever said that to anyone? You can’t have a successful communication if one party isn’t listening. We know this and recognize the importance of active listening, yet all too often our conversations go astray as we or the other party tune out.

We (or the person we’re talking to) tune out when our thoughts go elsewhere. We also tune out when we are trying to make our point and override what the other person is saying.  This typically happens if we have decided we are not being heard. In the process, we block what is being said to us in an attempt to reinforce our perspective.

The result is the communication doesn’t work. Whatever the purpose of the conversation, it isn’t achieved. Worse, we may need to repair any damage we have done to a relationship we are building if we have left the other person angry or annoyed.   

Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn identify three conditions needed by an effective communicator in their blog post, Leadership: Listening to Others in Volatile Times. The three requirements are:

  • Focus – Keep the conversation focused on the speaker, even if you’ve gone to them for something. Either they need the help or they have what you need.
  • Openness – Be willing to listen. Don’t make up your mind before hearing what the person has to say.
  • Willingness – This is the tough one. You need to be prepared to change your mind or your actions based on what the other person says.  You cannot get here without being focused and open.

Knowing these three conditions doesn’t mean we put them into practice.  There are barriers we construct that keep us from being successful at active listening. Williamson and Blackburn list these five. If you notice these barriers coming up you need to return to practicing the three requirements.

  1. Indifference – For some reason, we think the speaker or their issue is not important.  They may be someone who always has an opinion, and we are tired of dealing with them. It could be a student who regularly brings up something that interferes with the direction you are taking the lesson.  The other party will eventually notice from body language, incorrect answers or other slips that you were not listening.
  2. Assumptions – This happens when we judge other people and categorize them based on our implicit biases.  Although getting to know them can change these perceptions, tuning someone out based on these assumptions hampers building relationship and affects how we are perceived in turn. You are missing an opportunity to connect and get to know someone who could be a true ally if given the chance.
  3. Distractions – Our days are filled with them. You hear your phone vibrate and stop listening to the speaker. Other people in the library have part of your attention, or the project you were managing before this conversation is still on your mind. In these instances, you are out of the conversation and have gone somewhere else. Allowing yourself to be distracted telegraphs the message that the other party and their issue isn’t important.  
  4. Hurrying – The other barriers – in addition to our overloaded schedules – frequently has us trying to hurry a conversation, not allowing the other person the time they need or deserve. Who has time?  We are like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. If you find yourself thinking, “get to the point,” you aren’t listening and you may miss an important piece of information. You’ve definitely missed a chance to connect.
  5. Information Overload – As librarians we are often guilty of doing this to others.  They come in with a question. We find the answer and keep going with related information and more detail than the person asked for or needed.  Given the likelihood of distractions and hurrying, less is more. When approaching your principal with a proposal, don’t give all the details. Hit the major bullet points and let the other person know you have more information if they need or want.

In conclusion, Williamson and Blackburn list 10 behaviors to promote active listening, many of which I’ve written about before:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Use positive body language.
  3. Restate or affirm what the other person is saying
  4. Ask clarifying questions to help you understand.
  5. Wait to share your comments until they finish.
  6. Pause and allow silence if appropriate.
  7. Be fully present and avoid distractions.
  8. Keep an open mind.
  9. React to the content, not the person.
  10. If you take note, explain why, so they don’t think you are ignoring them.

Leaders must be good listeners to be successful communicators. Check in with yourself if your mind wanders and get back to focus, openness, and willingness. Soon, you’ll be actively listening to and engaged with the person speaking with you.

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