Listening skills can be improved

My week has been spent trying to become a better listener. I said I'd consult a communications expert, Dr. Gail Myers, co-author of an internationally acclaimed text, "The Dynamics of Human Communication." And I did.

Most of us realize that "hearing" is a mechanical factor generated when our ears get assailed by wiggling airwaves. "Listening" is a high-order mental process you do inside your head. You own your listening. You can change approaches — if you want to. Some people listen better than others.

Two rules for interacting seem simple but can be hard to follow. First rule, one person talks at a time. Second, related to that, take reasonable turns being speaker and listener. Conversations should be more like playing ping-pong than running a marathon.

Isn't listening affected by situations we're in?

Yes, sometimes. Listening behaviors are affected by many internal and external factors; how you listen varies widely from situation to situation and often is impacted by things outside your consciousness. There's a side benefit to making a focused effort to be a better listener — you might understand yourself, your own habits, better.

Effective listening is a skill, and improving any skill takes practice. To improve, you need to work at it. Here are a few things to consider.

First is "time factor." You can listen at about 800 words a minute and people speak in the range of 125 words a minute. What do you do with that extra time? I suggest you "think back" on what was said, and "think ahead" on where the speaker might be going. But pay attention to the speaker and show it. Don't use that word advantage to over-formulate what you plan to say next or mentally rearrange your grocery list.

Second involves "content." We tune out stuff that does not interest us and speakers who ramble or repeat themselves. A little patience and curiosity helps you survive boring accounts and offers good analytical practice at "listening between the lines." We hone observational skills and enhance our cognitive abilities by watching nonverbal interactions and attending to the hidden agendas of others.

Third are the "psychological factors." Distractions come from inside us as well as from environmental interference. Emotions distract listening. People we don't agree with — and offensive or opposing issues — are hard to listen to. We gravitate toward people we like, whose opinions are similar to ours. Understand that happens.

Aging people have been maligned as "set in their ways," but that actually describes humans of any age. From infancy onward, humans have predispositions for or against things in their world, whether it's creamed spinach in a highchair or politics in high office. We are better listeners (maybe we could even say "better people?") if we can learn to focus responses on description rather than judgment.

And finally, listening is a mental activity; your mind has to be constantly engaged to do it effectively.

And an engaged mind is the groundwork for healthier aging — we hear that. It's loud and clear.

Reach Sharon Johnson at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.

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