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Do you know how to listen?

Have you ever asked yourself how good a listener you are?

Every conversation involves listening and the quality of your relationships with others depends on your listening skills. You may listen out of politeness and respect or because you want to help or give advice. The question is always whether you are listening because of yourself or because of the other person.

If it's because of you, you will most probably want to add your story to what you hear. In your head you will already be preparing your answer while listening, impatiently waiting for your turn to speak. In cases when you are not capable of holding a dilemma or contradiction, you might jump into the conversation and cut the other person short.

You also notice when someone who is supposed to listen to you starts talking immediately after you've finished with "but". That means that person didn't really listen to you. It is about their story, not yours.

The aim of this blog is to become more reflective rather than reactive while listening and to develop skills and an awareness which will help you go from the 'story' of the other person towards recognising their feeling behind the story, the depth of their message and the real meaning behind it. You will develop empathetic listening skills.

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The learning takes place when we don't speak

Dalai Lama said: "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new."

Conscious daily listening is rare, nearly a lost art. But in many professions the ability of active listening is the only way to go. Take dance coaching or therapy for example. The point is to pull out and discover what is inside the student or client. Teaching and consulting is about listening first and guiding later. That's why it is crucial to develop active listening skills in order to help others, to make them feel better by opening your perceptual field to new sources of information.

Listening - reflecting - paraphrasing - probing

Active listening is a learned process and it involves receiving verbal and nonverbal messages. To just listen and not take the story away from the other is probably the hardest. At least it felt that way for me, when I became aware that I don't truly listen, but I mostly speak about myself.

As a good listener you would hang on every single word that you hear and at the same time observe the body language of the person who talks - facial expressions, head inclination, placement and movements of hands, posture, unaware self touching, their eye movements as well as the tone of their voice.

To really be there for another person, the SOLER model will help you.

S - sit/stand facing the person

O - open your body position

L - lean forward a bit

E - eye contact when appropriate

R - relax, take comfortable position, let it be a way of being

Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet. Your back cues are the verbal and nonverbal signals that you send while someone is talking and can consist of verbal cues like "uh-huh", "oh", "right" and/or nonverbal cues like direct eye contact when appropriate, head nods and slight leaning forward.

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Reflecting someone's talk means that you hit back the ball in exactly the same way as you received it. In reflecting skill you serve as a mirror to another person. You might reflect back the whole sentence, or you only repeat a few words, often even a single word is enough. The best is to reflect back the "feeling", emotion words. Repeating the right emotional word is an invitation to go back to the real emotion behind the story and investigate it.

There are many benefits of a good reflection.

First, the person who talks feels heard as you are not putting your agenda in there at all. You just listen without judging or giving advice.

Second, that person may hear the words as if for the very first time. The story goes out directly to you, it is not circulating only in their head anymore, it might even surprise them and they would comment: "Finally I said it!".

Third, the story often brings heavy, painful material, so it is difficult for a speaker to go down to the feelings. A narrative feels safe, so people prefer to talk about the story, as the feeling they have inside might be painful. But the true "meat" is hidden in the feeling, therefore with a good reflection you can help others to recognise the real feeling behind their story.

Here is an example of reflection.

Pupil: "I'm not sure if I want to attend this competition."

You: "Not sure?"

Pupil: "Yes, I saw the panel of adjudicators and I doubt that I'll get the result I deserve."

You: "Doubt?"

Pupil: "Yes, I'm afraid that most of them don't know me and therefore will not mark me."

You: "Afraid?"

Pupil: "I see no point in taking a risk and then being disappointed."

You: "Being disappointed?"

The pupil's feeling behind the story about adjudicators is in fact something else, might be the pupil's self-doubt, insecurity... this is to be discovered. This conversation will continue with probing questions below.

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By paraphrasing you can clarify the message of the speaker. When you paraphrase information, you rephrase the message in your own words and you can do that in various ways, by saying: "What I heard you say was…”, "It seems like (looks like, feels like) you’re saying…", "I would like to clarify that I’ve understood you correctly. May I?”, "Sounds like there is more there."...

Probing questions are more concrete, you ask for more detail on a particular matter. You shape these questions in a way that you encourage and explore the thoughts and feelings of the other person. Therefore these are typically open-ended questions, meaning the answers could be subjective.

Probing questions are often follow-up questions like, "Could you tell me more about that?", "Please explain what you mean.", "Do you feel that that is right?", "How did you come to this conclusion?", "What would need to change for you to accomplish this?".

Probing can be seen as gentle digging, orientated towards discovering something new. Let me continue the dialogue that I started above with probing questions.

You: "Being disappointed about what?"

Pupil: "About the result."

You: "What would need to change to get a better result?"

Pupil: "Many things... I have to improve my stamina, work on balance and turns and I need to look better."

You: "How did you come to this conclusion?"

Pupil: "Well, I still remember the last competition and all these problems, plus I gained few more kilograms in the past months..."

You: "Few more kilograms in the past months?"

Pupil: "Yes, I feel fat and ugly..."

You can lead your pupil in a direction to recognise a real reason for their insecurity and also continue with the questions that will help them see the solution.

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With this approach you teach your students how to relax and listen to themselves. This is how you put them on the right mental and emotional path. Let them tell you how they truly feel and what is meaningful for them.

But be careful not to start the question with "why". For example if you ask: "Why would you do that?", you may make the speaker feel guilty or confused as the question "why" usually has a defensive reaction. Use more questions with "how" and "what" as they make people feel in charge, in control.

Here are some tips from Chris Voss, world known negotiator, about how to use the tone of your voice when reflecting, paraphrasing or probing. While paraphrasing, use a direct and honest or playful voice. A smiley voice stimulates closeness and trust. A low, down, slow voice is very powerful, use it only when needed, because it's cold and creates distance. A late night DJ voice is warm, soothing, use it only when you need to calm down quickly. If you want to get more attention use a tone of curiosity which is higher pitched and quieter.

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Empathetic listening

I spent my years as a dance teacher subconsciously in the role of Mother Theresa, listening to my students out of sympathy. I felt for them, but was not truly capable of empathetic listening. It was often about me and not about them. I wasn't listening with an intent to understand, but with the intent to advise.

Empathetic listening is quite different from sympathetic listening. While the word empathy means to "feel into" or "feel with" another person, sympathy means to "feel for" someone. Sympathy is generally more self-oriented and distant than empathy.

Empathetic listening can be difficult as we are mostly self-focused, how we perceive and see the world outside starts with our story. Therefore it is much easier to tell our own story or to give advice than to really listen to and empathize with someone else.

Every good conversation is a collaboration rooted in empathy, that means becoming aware of the other person's perspective, how they see and how they feel. You try to understand their rules and drives.

Emotional support in the form of empathetic listening can help dance partners, coaches and their pupils and working teams to manage common stressors of relationships. You should keep in mind that sometimes others just need to be heard and your comment or advice isn’t actually needed nor desired. Learn to bite your tongue. The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.

True listening is a sign of respect and it makes others feel valued.

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