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Active listening – getting the most from communications

Understanding what makes people move, what makes them act, react and what brings them to the realisation that you have actually listened to them, cannot be achieved without active listening.

Many of us think that if we speak a lot, gesticulate profusely and raise our voice several pitches, what we say will be better and faster understood – nothing further from the truth.

We, the communicators, are the best placed professionals in the world of business or government affairs to read our audiences/publics: but to do that, we need to know how to actively listen.

In the past (for those of us who were young before the age of social media), actively listening was far easier than it is today due to the constant face-to-face interaction used back then. Listening today is difficult, not necessarily because of the complexity of the communication channels, but because of the false positives social media provides us with and the various personas people use online.

We can get some good indicators, at times, of what our interlocutors and publics ‘think’ during their online interactions but, under no circumstance, should these indicators be taken for granted without a secondary body of evidence (focus groups, sampling or one-to-one random interviews to back them up). Social analysis techniques and statistical analysis teach us a lot about these.

People communicate verbally, silently, physically and in writing. If someone says something but his/her body language, eyes or any other additional indicators do not corroborate the words uttered, those may either be untrue or your interlocutor is a seasoned ‘speaker’.

I have been told by many that I have a ‘poker face’ – I do. I’ve also been told that what is considered to be my excessive politeness in this day and age, comes across as arrogance. Having worked, for a long time, in very stressful environments and being seated at a table where every involuntary blink was interpreted by the other parties as a sign of X or Y, I had to master my body, my voice and my words.

To actively listen means opening your mouth to agree, disagree or provide advice – the rest is noise which should only be used if you choose to and, if it turns you into a chatter-box, it should also provide you with a far better opportunity to understand your interlocutors and make them ‘open-up’.

Relating to someone’s story or situation and providing them with a recount of a similar experience to theirs, is also a psychological form of active listening: you prove you understand, you prove that you relate and, most importantly, without saying ‘I agree’, you build a rapport.

The best active listeners are the investigative journalists, criminal lawyers and police detectives – they all allow their counterparts to tell their story and, then, choose very specific points to delve into, points that immediately prove that they were ‘listening’.

If you are the diva on the stage and all eyes are on you, you cannot listen – you are being listened to. Our eyes speak much more than any words could – it may not be the analogy that you were hoping I’d give but, if you have a pet (especially dogs or horses) – how many times do they actually use words to ‘talk’ to you?

Don’t think that body language is the most important aspect in active listening – on its own, it isn’t; on the contrary. The higher the level of your interactions (government officials, CEOs, multinational boards etc.) the better the ‘poker game’ and the ‘cards’ are seldom shown. The best discipline to provide you with real insight on this is diplomacy.

Use all your senses (especially your gut feeling) to judge, analyse and understand someone’s account: what they say, how they say it, when they say it, how they look when they say it, what they do when they say it and, most importantly, should the environment change, will they still say the same?

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