Better Listening Advice

As someone who teaches communication skills I scan for blogs that might have some new information that I need to investigate. I recently came across a blog entitled, Five Communication Strategies You Must Master. Disappointingly, this blog did not have anything new though it did press one of my hot buttons.

One of my pet peeves isElephant_SM advising a person to “listen.” The advice is typically: “Make sure you concentrate on what the person is saying, and don’t think about what you’re going to say next.” I’ll agree this is good advice, but they never tell you what to listen for. Occasionally they will suggest listening for “key points.” The only problem is how do you know what the key points are to the speaker?

One of the worst pieces of advice that well-meaning people give is to paraphrase what a person says back to them. Their rationale for this is to check your understanding of the message the speaker is trying to convey. Paraphrasing is a bad thing to do. The person talking to you chose specific words for a reason. Paraphrasing with different words, that you think mean the same, but may or may not mean the same to the other person, causes confusion. You know this is happening when they start to look like our elephant friend.

A Realtor I know makes a very good living by parroting words back to people. When a client asks for an elegant dining room in the house, the realtor does not use words like “formal,” “large” or other words that that could be associated with the word “elegant.” He makes sure he uses the exact words his clients used so they will know that he understands their desires.

Elegant is one of those words I classify as being fuzzy. Elegant to you may or may not be elegant to someone else. Our language is filled with fuzzy words. Adjectives are the perfect example of fuzzy words—beautiful, cute, large, and the list goes on. Ask a dozen people to describe any of those words and you will get a dozen different descriptions.

My lesson on listening is a little more specific than most advice: When you’re listening for words, listen for those descriptive words people are using and use those words back so they feel you understand exactly what they’re saying. This builds initial confidence in the person you are talking with. Most of the time other information gives you enough details to be in their meaning ballpark. If you need clarification of a fuzzy word ask question that prompt detail answers. For example; repeat the word with a questioning tone, “Elegant?” or “What are your planning for the dinning room?” Most people will give more details with simple questions like these. Recently I looked puzzled at a client and they filled in all the details I needed.