On a scale from one to ten, with one representing the worst and ten the best, what score would you give yourself when it comes to how well you let others know you are listening when they speak? Just out of curiosity, would your spouse or others close to you agree with your response? As president of a ministry promoting and teaching how to have a strong marriage, I admit I should know the value of intentional listening. However, I also admit I consistently struggle in this area. Mainly because I am usually going Mach 10 with my pants on fire, thinking I need to get to the next thing.
Bottom line, when this occurs I am operating from a selfish heart by making a volitional choice to not listen closely when others are speaking—even when it is the person taking my food order at the drive-through! So, what is intentional listening? Simply stated, it is exercising specific communication skills that help give the speaker greater confidence in knowing that what they have said has been accurately interpreted and understood. Since intentional listening is also often referred to as active listening, let’s look at a few specific characteristics of active listening, beginning with non-verbal indicators.
Your body language has a lot to do with letting others know you're listening. For example, making eye contact with the speaker lets them know you value their comments, as opposed to you looking at text messages or e-mails on your cell phone. Occasionally giving them an affirming “head nod” lets others know you’re listening. Facial expressions also say much about the listener. Looking angry or staring intensely is generally a good way to cut conversations short. Smiling at others when they are talking is basically like giving them permission to open up and lets them know you care. If you’re not angry, don’t send mixed signals.
People tend to quickly notice whether you're listening by how you stand or sit while they speak. Lounging back in a chair with your arms folded tends to more easily give others the impression that you are not engaged in the conversation. While some might argue this type of posture sends a signal of comfort, most interpersonal communication specialists will agree that sitting more upright and even leaning into the speaker is more likely to let them know you are actively listening.
Interjecting an infrequent “yes” can let others know you’re tracking with them. However, very few people enjoy it when the interjections come every few seconds. Summarizing is a great way of engaging in the conversation. “What I hear you say,” is a good example of summarizing. Asking clarifying questions like, “So, I understand you to say,” or “Can you give me more information?” not only lets the speaker know you’re listening, but also whether they are accurately communicating their thoughts.
Remember, active listening doesn’t mean constantly interjecting your comments by cutting others off. God tells us in Proverbs 18:13 that, “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” So, how about now? Would you still give yourself the same score as you did previously?