Cultivating Awareness

Listening well requires discipline and thought.  Our thoughts are things we own – they emerge from our personal schemas, as defined in a previous blog. Simply stated, our thoughts are the instruments we use to arrange and outline our unique maps of the world.  Furthermore, our thoughts are direct descendants of our perceptions, which have been born out of our personal experiences.

Because of how they are created, thoughts can be fickle.  For example, think about attending a movie with a group of friends.  Afterwards, you excitedly discuss your favorite characters, scenes and lines. It soon becomes apparent that everyone has different favorites!   Who or what did you focus on compared to the others?  You begin to wonder if they even viewed the same movie!   Even more compelling is the realization that you will also watch this same film in a week or even years later only to find that your own viewpoint has changed.  What have you experienced since viewing it the first time?  Thoughts evolve.  They can be tricky; reality is not always certain.

In our efforts to hear not only what we want to hear, but also to pay attention to the rest of what is being said, we have to cultivate our awareness in order to become better listeners.  Awareness asks us to expand our thinking by calling our perceptions into question, possibly even prompting us to change them. Communication research bears out that perception creation is a process.  First, we select what we pay attention to because we cannot attend to everything that bombards us daily. Next, we arrange our selections in ways that make them meaningful to us.  Researchers tell us that we also classify our perceptions in a number of ways before we interpret them through our own prisms.  Finally, when our interpretation differs from another’s, we exchange ideas and narratives that allow us to negotiate their meanings.  Interestingly, this is but one example of how we influence one another through listening.

If, as you read these blogs, you have interpreted their contents as helpful, allowing you to evaluate your own listening style, let’s close with this: Change does not happen when we separate ourselves from that which we want to change. Change is challenging because it involves recognition, learning and action – we have to put some skin in the game.  Action involves an honest examination of our current listening skills, as well as a commitment to cultivate more awareness so we can, recognize the challenges that keep us ineffective as listeners.  We need to study and assimilate various listening responses that let others know we are tuned in to what others are saying. When we take the steps to more effectively control how we listen, we can become more adept listeners.

Analytical Listeners

Analytical listeners can be the best at suspending judgment, because to suspend, one has to avoid the temptation of always being certain. It takes a special kind of discipline to corral the thought that one can “fix” everything.  Analytical listeners have the discipline to listen, and similar to the critical listener they break down what needs to be done systematically.  The difference is they want to get things started right away.  Get the problems solved, the mission accomplished or the issues cleared, all in a timely manner!  Because they are often time-oriented, this type of listener uses strategies to “rein in” those who wander away into free-ranging conversations and discussions. Their non-verbal cues signal their impatience with wordiness; they glance at the clock, sigh or let the other speaker “see” the impatience written all over their facial expressions.

Analytical listeners have to struggle to resist their impulses to control not only time, but other time-killing factors, therefore creativity can be limited because they put pressure on those who indulge too much in it. Creativity, free-thinking and those that want to “leave the reservation” metaphorically speaking simply exhaust the analytical listeners among us. These time-consuming factors affect their ability to focus. This is very helpful when other speakers tend to drone on and on, oblivious to the time they waste or the frustration they produce in those who have to listen to them.  A slow delivery or a lengthy explanation exasperates the analytical listener, but consider this: what might get sacrificed when feelings get ignored or people are rushed?

Worrying about time and other time-consuming details too much while another is speaking, can cause us to lose sight of what David Bohm refers to as the “order between” two extremes.  What richness might be found between the “this and that” in a conversation?  Our western culture thrills to a good debate, and we preach punctuality as a virtue. However, when we are anxious to keep things moving, are we really hearing everything?  We might be ignoring the opportunity to search for the middle ground.  We may miss the subtle nuances that allow us to see themes, patterns and links that are beneath the surface of what is being said.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is

  • They are efficient managers of time, setting the pace for meetings and conversations
  • They can suspend judgment as they analyze a conversation
  • They resist the impulse to think out the box too much because they are more prone to efficiency
  • They will get to the bottom line quickly

Task-Oriented Listeners

Task- or content-oriented listeners, whether in personal or workplace contexts, are the efficiency experts of interpersonal conversations.  They get quite excited about the technical content in conversations; they possess a knack for considering all sides of any given issue. Like the critical listener, this listening type also engages in multi-tasking, but rather than merely evaluate message content, they spend time drilling down deeply for details.  If they perceive the speaker does not have expertise in his or her topic, they can lose interest quickly. Even more intimidating to the other speaker is their habit of posing challenging questions in an attempt to elicit more information.

This type of listener is greatly appreciated in businesses and organizations because they have a propensity for clarifying content, accomplishing many things proficiently and engendering support for ideas, not just their own.  This listening style is also the best at playing the devil’s advocate.  They are hard to argue with because they enter conversations armed with the facts and they are not afraid to be challenged.  This is the charts-and-graphs listener, the ones who quote credible experts to prove their points and challenges others to bring similar data into the discussion.

Given all of this, this style may become counter-productive when more careful deliberation is called for or concern for feelings needs to be acknowledged.  As their frustration rises, they risk alienating the other speaker with both verbal and non-verbal signals that minimizes non-essential details. This can result in their taking a long time to make decisions. This listening style can also be very tricky, culturally speaking.  If the other speaker comes from a culture where being brusque or blunt is considered impolite, they may be left with an impression that the listener did not intend to give. In individualistic cultures, like that of in the U.S., more leeway is given to those who are task-driven.  However, collectivistic cultures place a higher premium on emotions and feelings. When their importance is minimized in an effort to get things done quickly it may cause more problems than it solves.  Further, if the listener implies that there is only one right answer, theirs, they risk losing respect. Ignoring another’s perspectives, insights and their need to feel included will not make for a very cooperative relationship.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is

  • They are efficient and encourage others to be more organized
  • They tend to be attentive to the details or technical points in a conversation, not its emotional content
  • They can assist others in focusing and considering all sides of an issue
  • They ask questions for clarity and understanding

Critical Listeners

A critical or action-centered listener is constantly evaluating the content of a conversation more than the emotions involved or what appears to be the topic-at-hand. They are more concerned with how accurate and consistent the message is than with building relationships or analyzing it from a variety of perspectives. They can perceive that there is non-verbal communication going on, but they tend to disregard that because…well, frankly, they are too busy focusing on investigative problem-solving. Give them the facts as quickly as possible or risk having them interrupt to ask questions.

This listening type is seldom guilty of ambiguity – you will clearly know from their side of the conversation what they expect of you. They are thinking while you are talking, but not necessarily making up their response. In their minds, this kind of multi-tasking is not rudeness; it is just part of their style.  While the conversation is going on, they are, at the very least, mentally outlining the remarks into a well-organized to-do list. They often speak rapidly and jump ahead to the next item on that list. That is, after all, how problems get solved!

They don’t want to know how you feel.  They want to know what you want them to do. What is it the speaker expects of them? Are they asking for advice or assistance in breaking down something that they find too complex to deal with?  What action should be considered?  Action oriented listeners may come across as finicky or too particular, but this is because they have a need to know all of the necessary information.

Listening well can be time-consuming because it requires us to pay attention. Therefore, if this type of listener perceives a decision has to be made, they will also spend more time discarding and/or ignoring what they perceive as unnecessary content.  They may hear it, but it is not going to be retained. Listeners who use this style fancy themselves to be good problem-solvers.  When solutions are needed, they perceive they are being asked to investigate and act, so they readily accept the challenge.  They can help others focus on getting things done. They can also be a great source of encouragement and organization, pushing others to take action as well.  This makes them important contributors to both business and personal transactions.

However, if solutions, advice or assistance is not what the other person is seeking, critical listeners may come across as hypercriticalWhy do they need to know that, the other speaker wants to know.  They also have a tendency to jump to conclusions, make assumptions and, most annoying of all, finish the other speaker’s sentences.  All of these traits can harm or minimize relationships rather than enhance them. Not every conversation is a cry for help or a problem seeking a solution.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is:

  • They listen primarily for content and its quality
  • They are rational thinkers, often constructing a list of action items even as the other speaker is still speaking
  • They evaluate as they listen, with an ear for errors, contradictions and inconsistencies
  • Investigative problem-solving is the critical listener’s forte

Relational Listeners

The relational or people-centered listener primarily listens for emotional cues rather than just content in conversations.  This type of listener generally will stop whatever they are doing to give the speaker their undivided attention.  The speaker’s cues, both verbal and non-verbal, are carefully considered because people-centered listeners know that sometimes the message being conveyed goes beyond mere words.

Relational listeners tend to focus more on creating emotional closeness with the speaker than offering solutions.  While listening, they seldom speak about themselves, but they do think while listening, often wondering if the speaker is hoping they will pick up on their emotional state and respond to it. Does the speaker want compassion or an empathetic response? Is this person asking for understanding, but not my opinion necessarily? Are they expecting supportive responses rather than analysis, advice or solutions?

The good news about being a relational listener is that their natural tendency is be attentive, approachable and sincere.  At their best, relational listeners are empathetic and respectful of the other speaker, allowing them time, as well as a constructive climate in which to say what is on their mind. They will use verbal cues, such as uh-huh, to indicate affirmation, or agreement, rather than jumping in with too many disruptive comments.  Non-verbal cues, such as shaking their head or reaching out to touch another’s hands or shoulders are other signals that they are really engaged in the conversation.

This style of listening lends itself easily to empathetic responses because it allows the listener to identify with the speaker’s emotions. Again, it is not evaluative; it is not listening to seek clarification.  In empathy, one legitimizes a speaker’s right to their feelings even if they do not necessarily agree with them. It is very important to note that; empathy is not assent.  It merely implies that the other speaker has a right to their feelings.  When we empathize with another, we do not seek to minimize or make light of their dilemma or situation.  We also resist the temptation to reverse the focus onto ourselves. Empathetic responses communicate validation and worth; research indicates that the ability to respond this way can be learned.  Good news because it does not come naturally to everyone.

There is a downside to this listening style, however, in that the relational listener sometime finds themselves becoming too emotionally involved.  That emotional connection can keep them from being able to objectively assess the details within a conversation.  Further, for all of their good intentions, this listening style can often come across as being too intrusive if the other person tends to be introverted, private or a less expressive communicator.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is

  • They quickly pick up and seek to understand the feelings of the speaker
  • They listen for moods and emotional substance over message content
  • They seek to build relationships and connect by giving good verbal and non-verbal feedback
  • They generally tend to be non-judgmental


Interpretation and Response

Perception in communication deals with our ability to interpret and respond to others.  That is obviously a critical ability to possess when we need to “hear” and process what others are trying to communicate when the normal tendency is to only be concerned with what I want to communicate.  When I listen closely, really listen, I have to care enough to perceive how the speaker feels.  I must attempt to perceive their emotions, moods and needs as we speak together in conversation.  Next, I am wondering without even being aware of it if this person is trying to connect with me, build or maintain their relationship with me.  Or perhaps they have sought me out as a sounding board to share ideas, feelings or problems.  How do I figure this out?

Communication experts recommend some crucial first steps:

  • suspend judgment
  • listen openly
  • resist the impulse to control the conversation
  • resist the urge to overanalyze what I “think” the speaker means to say

Would you agree that these steps are challenging?

In other words, we want to strive to attend to the full message.  Again, not as easy as it sounds, is it?  In order to hear and listen well, some evaluations are occurring, consciously and unconsciously, of both the message content and the messenger.  We do this from a variety of different perspectives or listening styles.  Communication experts have identified four basic listening styles that everyone uses at various times in various situations.  None of the styles we will examine in these next few blogs have any morality attached to them – they are not good or bad, just different.  Further, we all employ these and their variations depending on the situations we find ourselves in at various times.  What separates an effective listener from one that is not so effective?  Effective listeners learn to adapt, employing a variety of styles, again depending on the other person and the situation.  Still, according to researchers, we all tend to gravitate to one primary style.

The next four blogs will examine these more deeply, but briefly the four styles are:

  • Relational listeners – these listeners keep their ears attuned to the emotional cues over mere content.
  • Critical listeners – these listeners constantly evaluate the content of a conversation, paying scant attention to the emotions involved.
  • Task-oriented listeners – these listeners want just the facts – get to the point so that the tasks can be systematically broken down and begun.
  • Analytical listeners – these are the detail people – those who have an impulse to evaluate and control what is being said.

The next four blogs will go into more detail for each of these listening styles.  You will notice that some of the attributes overlap at times – listening is not an exact science or skill.   Why do we need to recognize what type of listening style we use?  Why is this awareness so valuable?

When we say someone is a good listener, what we are really saying is that they have learned to be more considerate, that they have cultivated their awareness so that they can skillfully adapt their listening styles to accommodate both the situation and the other speaker.  Every one of us appreciates being “heard” in conversations.  The challenge is to appreciate and remember that this also holds true for others.  Hopefully this information will motivate us all to examine, evaluate and adjust our listening styles in order to become more effective listeners.

Emotions, Part I

Emotions in Communication

I attended an all-girl high school in New Orleans back in the 70s. Although I was not a particularly spiritual student, I looked forward to Religion class for one reason: the nun that taught it shared an affinity for the music of Simon and Garfunkel.  Her class primarily consisted of listening to their songs and then analyzing the lyrics to tease out its possible meaning or message. Today, I cannot hear The Dangling Conversation, Sounds of Silence or El Condor Pasa  without being transported back to that three-storied, circa 1906 building that exists now only in my memories.  The dust motes dance in front of my teenaged self, sitting at her desk jotting down her inspired epiphanies. Music communicates! It touches our emotions in inexplicable ways.  Without a range of emotional experiences in our repertoire would we even know we are alive?

In 1995, Communication theorist Daniel Goleman gave us the term emotional intelligence, (EQ), which he posited was just as critical for our success as cognitive ability, and further, was also measurable. Goleman’s research set out to assess EQ, as well as prove the value of its effects on our self-esteem, perceptions and overall satisfaction with life.  Emotions are an integral part of the human ability to communicate, but what exactly are they?  We know from research that emotions can be influenced by many factors, including personality, culture, gender, societal norms, social roles and emotional contagion.  Further, emotions cause physiological changes, so we know that emotions are not simply experienced in our heads.  Without our being aware of it, our emotions often manifest themselves in non-verbal reactions. What we say and what our bodies say are interconnected – do we sometimes hear what another is saying without their saying a word?  Of course we do!

Although we may be experiencing a variety of emotions, our bodies often respond in very similar ways.  Angry people perspire, tense up their muscles and feel a rise in blood pressure, but so do excited and happy people.  How can we listen to what our own bodies are saying to us when we interpret our emotions?  Further, do we stop to reappraise what we felt from the distance of a few hours or days after we originally felt them?  This can be critical in our communication with others; we do not have to act on an emotion simply because we felt it. Being annoyed with a friend or loved one can be maddening, but walking away rather than saying something hurtful can be a relationship saver at times, can it not?  Yes words can be powerful tools to communicate how we feel emotionally.  But again, simply saying you are angry rather than acting out your anger is certainly more beneficial in most instances.

Emotions are tricky at best – we have little say so over how we will react to something we hear.   How do perceptual differences when they are so complex and multi-dimensional?  In the next blog, we will discuss how we deal with “incoming” data.

Emotions, Part II

How do emotions affect our ability to listen and respond?  

One line in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer  has resonated with me since I first heard it in that classroom, especially when I consider the research on how we listen: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”  Simon & Garfunkel certainly touched a universal chord with that line, didn’t they?  What did the popular duo want us to “hear” when they penned those words?  There are many interpretations, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s examine what that oft-repeated line has to teach us about our perception of emotions in communication.  Why do we only seem to hear those things that we perceive will benefit us, while eschewing other things that we perceive as unnecessary?   Moreover, why does the truth in that line arouse such an emotional response in us?  For me personally, the words tap directly into my frustration at so often being a bad listener.  In the next few blogs of this series, I hope to share a few salient points that I have learned, but not always practiced, about learning to listen more effectively and attempting to rid myself of some bad listening habits.

In an earlier blog we discussed the Schema Theory, which speaks directly to our ways of making sense of our world. We construct our realities based on our personal schemata, using them to attach meanings to what we perceive.  We are constantly bombarded with more input than we can handle, so we make unconscious choices constantly about what to “listen to” and what to ignore.  Following that selection of incoming information, our minds must arrange it in a way that makes sense to us.  We organize people and events, often generalizing them to keep things simpler, such as “all women do…” or “all political rallies are….”

Next we have to attach meaning to our perceptions – is he smiling at me because he wants to be friendly or should I interpret that smile as a romantic come-on?  Are you picking on me because we are such good friends and like to tease one another? Or are you genuinely irritated with my behavior?  Again, the schemata kick into full gear: If a friend teased you so badly in the past that teasing crossed over to bullying behavior in your mind, how likely is it that you will jump to that conclusion whenever this happens again?  Interpretation of this information helps us to make sense of it.

Finally, we influence the perception of others by a process communication theorists have termed negotiation. In its simplest terms, negotiation is the adage that there are two sides to every story.  If I perceive that someone’s treatment of me is benign teasing, but another person witnesses it and tells me I am being bullied, I have a choice to make.  Our interpretations are different; how do I negotiate this difference?  Do I stubbornly cling to my perceptions or try to renegotiate them?  Do I listen to what another has to say or disregard it?

To complicate things further, how I listen, what I choose to regard and what I choose to discard are all dependent upon a variety of factors, some of which I have no control over.  In the next blog, we will look at what influences our perceptions and assumptions?