Did you know, on an average, a person can speak about 225 words per minute? However, the human brain can process around 500 words in that time frame. This gap creates a lag and our brain tends to assume the remaining 275 or so words. The result: a communication barrier which negatively impacts relationships.

Building links, the brain way

What then is the key to successful communication? According to a study by Princeton University it is ‘speaker–listener neural coupling’. The team at Princeton “used the speaker’s spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker’s brain activity is coupled with the listener’s activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.” Simply put, when the listener anticipates and understands what the speaker says, coupling takes place. However, once our mind begins to wander, decoupling happens and our ability to understand what the speaker is saying deteriorates. A way to bridge this gap – active listening.

It takes 100% attention

Wondering why listening is qualified by ‘active’? Dr. Phillip L. Hunsaker, Management Professor at the University of San Diego, and Tony Alessandra, author and speaker, explain. “When people are listening, they can be placed in one of four general categories – non-listener, marginal listener, evaluative listener, and active listener. Each category requires a particular depth of concentration and sensitivity from the listener; trust and effective communication increase as we advance beyond the first type. Active listening (AL) is the highest and most effective level of listening, it is a special communication skill. It is also a great strategy for having effective communication.”

The importance of developing this skill is then obvious. It’s particularly valuable during customer interactions, and conversations with colleagues. Here’s how can you be an active listener:

  • Pay complete attention to what the speaker is saying. Listen carefully, express interest, and do not interrupt midway.
  • You can also paraphrase what is being said, and ask relevant questions.
  • Nod, make eye contact, or smile when appropriate. Such visual cues help show interest.
  • Pay attention to the speaker’s body language and alter your own to show openness.

Lending an ear, and truly so

The gains to be made go beyond building trust. Active listening even impacts how people feel about their workplace. As this study shows, subordinates whose supervisors scored high on listening attitude and listening skill reported a more favourable psychological stress reaction, than those who worked under supervisors with a lower score for both. Subordinates under the high-score supervisors also felt they received higher worksite support!

When building communication skills, we often hone our ability to speak but miss improving the equally important skill of listening. With to-do lists, gadgets, and the need to multi-task, true listening faces stiff competition. But as author M. Scott Peck says, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

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