Friday, October 19, 2012

The Etiquette of Listening



When someone is talking to us, we should make an effort to listen to what he or she is saying. It’s only polite. Whenever we have something to say, we certainly want people to listen; otherwise why bother?

The art of listening can be complicated even though it may seem to only require one’s ears and attentive mind. There are many advantages to mastering this skill. For one thing, what others say can reveal, inform and educate us about news, opinions, and facts. Sometimes what is being said is important and we want to hear every word. Many times it can be boring or useless information. But out of politeness and good manners, we must try our hardest to pay attention.

Large gatherings can present challenges to listening. The noise levels can reach a fever pitch making it practically impossible to hear another person speaking. This puts listening at a great disadvantage. Large groups tend to evolve into many small groups rather quickly helping us to be able to focus on those near at hand. In these situations, speak clearly and look directly at the person to whom you are speaking. This helps you gauge levels of comprehension and interest. When listening, look at the person’s lips a well as eyes. I am amazed how well so many people can lip read when pressed.

Avoid looking over the shoulder of someone who is speaking to you. Distractions of others entering the room are inevitable, but averting one’s eyes from the speaker to catch a glimpse of something or someone who may be more interesting is simply rude. We all know what it feels like to suddenly be left speaking to someone who has completely disengaged from the conversation. We don’t like being ignored or displaced, so why do it to others?

Lectures can be particularly difficult to hold one’s attention for too long unless the subject is gripping or the speaker is captivating. If our attention wanders off in a daydream, it might be just when some brilliant concept is clearly explained, falling on deaf ears. Before going to a talk, especially in the evening after dinner when falling asleep is easy, I make sure I have something to write on or record so I can take a few notes. When paying close enough attention to take notes, missing key points is less likely. Great information, often unrelated to the main topic, emerges almost as a bonus!

Remembering what people have said when one is distracted is practically impossible. Although we can actually hear more than one conversation at a time, we really only listen to one at a time, missing out on the others. This can happen with peoples’ names, important dates, or major talking points. When this happens, refocus on one conversation and let go of other distractions. In casual conversations this is less critical than it is in a business setting. However, when vital information slips one’s mind, the best way to handle the situation is to ask for it to be repeated. Being honest with colleagues instills trust. We all become distracted from time to time. 

People come to us in times of need, when there may be some acute stress in their lives. Often times, they may want an opportunity to vent or express their emotions. Sometimes they are looking for answers or guidance. By listening to them carefully, we can discern what they are really looking for and act accordingly.

Interacting socially occurs in one’s business life as well as one’s personal life. Navigating social mores can be daunting to anyone slightly shy. Talking about one’s own life can be one manner of coping; however, good manners and etiquette are about putting others first. Resist speaking only about yourself and your experiences, and ask questions of others about their lives and opinions. 

A good rule of thumb is to notice when we are talking about ourselves or when we become too intense about any subject. Try shifting the emphasis over to what is interesting to the other person, which gives you a chance to make sure they are as interested in the matter at hand as you are. 

Don’t repeat what someone has just said as a way of indicating you understood what was spoken. This interrupts the person speaking. Occasionally this may be appropriate, but is not a good practice. Many of us develop speech patterns, and listening patterns, too! Repeating conversations is akin to interrupting. By carefully listening to what someone is saying we not only demonstrate respect, we might learn something, too!