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|Dead and Alive||The International Listening Association||Like Attracts Like||Better Listening Techniques|
March is International Listening Month. It's also the time of year to make maple syrup in Vermont. What do the two have to do with each other? Here's a clue in this story of exactly 99 words.
Dead and Alive
On a springtime walk in the woods I came upon an unusual sight. Where a grove of sugar maples had stood last summer, now there were only stumps. Though disappointed, I was curious to see that each stump was soaking wet and surrounded by a puddle of water even though it had not been raining.
Looking closer, I realized that this wasn't water. It was sap, the raw material of maple syrup! Loggers thought the tree was dead but the roots thought it was alive.
We are quick to make assumptions about what we cannot see!
Human beings have been on the planet for over 3 million years. That's the estimated age of "Lucy" the oldest known fossil of human origin. Even if you only consider anatomically "modern" humans, our history can be dated to over 200,000 years (Ask.com). That should have given us plenty of experience using and interpreting our senses, including our ability to hear and listen. Yet it is only in the last few decades that we have begun to understand the variety of skills involved in effective listening.
We spend a lot of time listening but, apparently, very few of us have been paying attention to what we've been hearing. Enter the International Listening Association (ILA), a 33-year-old organization devoted to "the study, development, and teaching of listening and the practice of effective listening skills and techniques." ILA members are focused on the impact listening has on all human activity and they readily include all forms of non-verbal listening to round out the communication picture.
ILA has an annual conference that attracts researchers, educators, psychologists, and other practitioners. The preconference session this year will focus on "Making Peace through Listening." A sample of breakout sessions includes "Listening and Democratic Politics," "Best Practices for Sustaining Organizations through Listening," and "Multi-Tasking and Listening: The Reality in the Information Age." ILA's newsletter, The Listening Post, has articles as diverse as "Sustainable Thinking about Listening," "Lose 25 Pounds and Gain Time and Energy - by Listening!" and "Speech Productivity by a Talking Bird."
Though efforts to teach improved skills for communication through writing, reading, and speaking have been around for quite a while, it has only been in the last 50 years that serious research has focused on how to refine listening skills. As a result, Amazon now lists over 24,500 volumes under the search term "listening skills." A similar search on Google will snag 11,800,000 page references in only 0.2 seconds (assuming you don't mind waiting that long!). You can also find tests, quizzes, exercises, and games associated with better listening.
Listening has garnered so much attention because it's complicated. Here's my theory about why:
There are many dimensions to listening and most of them happen below the surface of our awareness. Like this month's 99-Word Story, part of communication is what is obvious, the information. It covers the hillside of our communication like trees in a forest. It's a huge job to process the enormous quantity of all that explicit information. We often forget about what is going on under the surface. There we find emotions that put us in tune or out of touch with the speaker. We find egos that are strong and forceful or reluctant and lacking self-esteem. We also find assumptions and judgments that lead us to give advice and commands that were not requested.
If we take away only the explicit information from a conversation, we leave the speaker with a stump of negativity and hurt feelings. But if we can understand communication as a whole tree both above and below the surface, listening becomes a way to nurture a growing relationship as sweet as maple syrup.
While researching the topic of listening, I came across this random tip. "If you're finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them - this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused." (Mind Tools)
I was immediately reminded of mirror neurons. When we are fully engaged observing another person's behavior, an fMRI scan of our brain will show activity in the same neural pathways as those in the brain of the person we are observing. It is as if we are doing the observed activity ourselves. Is this mirroring, I wondered, what happens when we use our best active listening skills? I soon found confirmation from several sources.
An article in the Chicago Tribune by Jen Weigel quoted author Travis Bradberry (Emotional Intelligence 2.0), "We tested more than a half million people, and the best listeners are unconsciously mimicking the people they hear. When you're caught up with thinking about what you're going to say next, you aren't listening. But if you stop what you're doing, and really focus on the person talking, you activate neurons in your brain and your body starts to hone in on the other person. This helps you retain more information."
Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen writes in the Huffington Post about a condition labeled "mirror neuron receptor deficit (MNRD)" in which a person constantly needs to have their emotional and psychological needs confirmed or mirrored by others. He says, "… when people feel unmirrored and uncared for and are experiencing a MNRD, they are in a state of emotional deprivation. While in that state of mind, their focus is often distracted by trying to correct that deprivation as opposed to focusing on what they need to get done for the good of their company or organization. Alternatively, when you are in a state of MNRD and you are accurately mirrored, you feel temporarily complete. That usually crosses over into feeling grateful and often the desire to reciprocate…"
Clifford Nass, in his book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop (Reviewed in the April 2011 Firefly News Flash), describes a number of experiments designed to shed light on how best to make an emotional connection with another person. He found that we are more satisfied with a listener who is upbeat if we are happy and more satisfied with one who is low key if we are feeling down. Nass suggests we make our initial connection to another person at their emotional plane before we try to "change" the direction of their mood.
Shawn Callahan of Anecdote wrote an article titled, "Telling Stories Puts Our Brains in Sync" for his February 2012 newsletter. He cites research by neuroscientists Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson of Princeton University in which storytellers and their listeners had the same brain areas activated while the story was being told. Brain analysis through fMRI revealed that, "Speaker and listener brain activity exhibits widespread coupling during communication." The researchers found that listeners' brain activity became synchronized with that of the storyteller. In some cases, the brain activity of the listener actually preceded that of the speaker. Listeners who engaged in this "prediction" of the story performed better at comprehension tests after the communication.
There are many skills related to active listening but perhaps mirroring the emotional state of the speaker is the ultimate key. If you can do that, the two of you will find yourselves standing between two mirrors, each of you reflecting to the other an infinitely greater degree of understanding.
How can you keep all this listening information straight? The International Listening Association is one place to start. Visit their site to get a sense of the breadth of research on listening. Or take an active listening quiz to gauge your abilities for yourself. Here are just two on-line assessments you might try.
Management: Self Assessment, McGraw-Hill Irwin
Dr. Guffy's Listening Quiz, Cengage Learning
Choose one aspect of listening you'd like to improve and give it some intentional practice during International Listening Month. Any skill practiced for 30 days will become an assimilated habit so when you create that new listening habit, please !
If you like what you have read in this issue, I would like to bring the same innovation, creativity, and playfulness to your next meeting or learning event.
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