Listen, do you want to know a secret?
I took a class in college in communications and the professor introduced the course with an opening statement that hit home with me, and has impacted my communication over the years; he said, "You spend the majority of your educational life learning how to read, write, and speak...but, did anyone ever focus on listening?"
Odds are if you're like me, listening was not the focus of your educational experience, but the most critical component of communication too often overlooked and not performed effectively.
For example, how many times do you say, "What did you say?" over "What did you mean?" There's a big difference, and the second question is essential to the process of active listening. If you are really listening, you're not necessarily accepting what was spoken (or written) as the intent; rather, you are reflective and exploring the content in order to capture affirmation. Listening is a process, not a single action, and doing it well will often help avoid conflicts and unnecessary actions; both in your professional and personal life.
Active listening involves a few key steps, interestingly enough, steps I used as a parent often when trying to assure my kids (when they were younger) understood what I was saying:
- Repeat back what was spoken as a question, confirm what you heard.
- Restate the question to provide some clarity and assure the words used have a shared understanding and meaning.
- Ask any additional questions you may feel necessary to be sure what you heard is what the person sharing meant to communicate, not just say.
The same is true if you're speaking, in other words, don't assume people understood what you said; make sure by following the same process above, just start with asking the person to repeat back to you their understanding.
Communication is not just an exchange of words, and if someone says to you, "I heard what you said," make sure they understood what you said - the impact and consequences could be significantly different from the original intent.
Words don't have meaning, people do...listen, it's not a secret.