Ben explains how listening can build up interpersonal skills, develop empathy and make people feel valued through highlighting various listening types and why it is so important.
‘Listening is the most powerful form of acknowledgement – a way of saying “you are important’.
I read this quote online, and found it incredibly powerful. Whether face to face or online, the importance of listening cannot be underestimated. If you think about it, we do it subconsciously in our daily lives, at work, at home, playing games or chatting to our friends, listening is something most of us don’t really stop to think about.
Listening builds trust and confidence and makes conversation between people feel important or genuine; or, if you are conversing with a group, it helps you to understand what’s currently being discussed and to participate in the discussion. Everyone wants to feel valued when they’re talking: one study that actively explored this found that pairing people with good listeners made them less anxious, more self-aware, and have higher clarity on their attitudes.
Communication and listening skills are essential for engaging with other people,
whether in person or online. Effective communication helps us to understand what’s being said in context, contribute, and interact with people accordingly. Broadly speaking, this applies to in-person, online, and written communications – in all of them, we need to receive information (“hear”), process it (“understand”), and act upon it (“respond”).
On a subconscious level, our hearing is the one thing that doesn’t properly turn off even when we’re sleeping. That’s why you still wake up if a loud crash happens in your home. It’s the body’s alarm and radar system, so to speak. This is exemplified by a phenomenon known as the cocktail party effect. This is where, for example, you can be at a noisy party, but suddenly hear your name mentioned in a separate conversation occurring across the room. What it shows is that your brain is filtering through a range of stimuli in the background and only consciously bringing relevant things to your attention. This is a great mechanism for keeping you safe in the wild (or eavesdropping at a party), but can also mean that we need to make sure we focus on conversations we are actively engaged in.
Visual cues are a key component to successful communication, which are important to deciphering the true message being conveyed through the auditory (hearing) route. Others’
body language (and also being self-aware of your own posture and movements) helps us to understand, interpret, and respond appropriately to what’s being said. It helps us to recognise the sort of emotion we should be feeling, whether positive or negative, as well as the emotion the other person is feeling.
There are different types of “listening” utilised as part of communication. Being aware of which one you are doing will help you engage with other people in a way that is meaningful to you and them, because they require different skills.
Active listening is important to really hear and understand what is being said. It allows you to absorb more specific details from the interaction. If you’re receiving instructions or training, you’ll be able to recall the details more easily.
Informational listening aims to understand the message being conveyed, without judgement or evaluation.
Critical listening aims to receive, understand, and evaluate content.
Empathetic listening is the ability to understand and feel what the other person is feeling or experiencing to be able to provide help, advice, or emotional support to a person in need.
Appreciative listening is for pleasure, for example, when we listen to music, or talk with friends about amusing stories. It doesn’t require us to organise, evaluate, or remember information.
Discriminative listening is used for pitch, volume, and other sounds that help us to understand the meaning of the message beyond language alone; for example, whether or not someone is telling the truth by changes in the way they speak or change tone
Great communicators are able to recognise what others have to say and make them feel equally important and valued. This is true both online and when you’re face to face with someone. Being able to recognise what someone is truly trying to say is a skill.
We’ve all been in that situation (or is it just me when I’m talking to my sister?!) where we feel the other person is disengaged and isn’t really listening to what we’re saying. Sometimes, people want social interaction; other times, they need help or our advice; in other instances, they may just need to let off some steam, rather than just keeping it to themselves and not having anyone to talk to. By being a good listener, we can develop strong interpersonal relationships by just being there and potentially even offering a solution that the other person hadn’t considered.
With that being said, sometimes people need an independent, neutral, or even an anonymous person to talk with, and there’s no shame in that either. Every year, the Samaritans charity group run a campaign to raise awareness for those suffering with different types of problems or struggling with day-to-day life. There are active volunteers available to help 24 hours a day for anyone who just needs someone to talk to or listen to. The Samaritans are always available if you or anyone you know needs their help. You can contact the Samaritans via their free helpline (116 123) or twitter page (@Samaritans).
Before the pandemic, I volunteered on a dementia ward at my local hospital. Spending time with the patients was very rewarding, as I could see the people really appreciated that they had someone to talk to and listen to. I even got to listen to my gran and nan before they died, hearing their stories and just being close to them. It was one of the most rewarding things I have done, and reminded me of how powerful my own silence could be while still being an active participant in a conversation – being there to just listen and ask questions meant the absolute world to them. This may also be true for people with disabilities who may feel isolated from the people around them. Improving our ability to listen to one another is a step towards a more accessible and equitable world for everyone.