Often when a misunderstanding occurs in relationships, it is attributed to a lack of communication, which most of time implies that either one was not listening or the speaker did not relate his/her message clearly.
Because the primary communications complaint in relationships is related to partners not listening to each other so let’s begin by acknowledging that the contrast between hearing and really listening can be as different as night and day. And in a professional environment, not listening effectively to customers, employees, parishioners and peers can mean the difference between success and failure, so it is in relationships.
There are three levels of listening. Let’s review each.
Hearing – this is the lowest level of listening; when you comprehend the spoken word, but do not react to it. It is sometimes referred to as “half-listening.” You hear someone talking but you are unaware of what is being said on a meaningful level.
Listening – this is the second level of listening and it is characterized by the listener becoming more aware of the meaning of the sounds they hear, but little response occurs from the receiver of the message.
Dynamic Listening (some call Peak Listening)- this is the highest level of listening. This level involves being attentive to the sender and processing the message thoroughly by relating it to experiences, ideas and feelings. Dynamic listening is critical, appreciative, and creative listening. It is a technique whereby the receiver listens and observes both the verbal and nonverbal cues of the sender’s message; focuses in on the feelings conveyed by the sender, and gives back to the sender what was heard and observed. Dynamic listening:
1) Promote understanding and acceptance.
2) Facilitate problem solving.
3) Promote relationship between sender and receiver.
It is a myth that people can actively listen to another while engaging in some activity. Think about it. If your total attention grasp capability is 100% and 10% of your attention is elsewhere, the speaker can only access 90% of your attention. That translates into 10% of the message NOT being heard. And, it is that 10% of the message that may have contained the primary content the speaker was trying to relate. If a person wants and needs to be heard, 90% of our attention will NOT suffice.
Dynamic listening requires our full concentration on what the speaker is saying as well as not saying. It is being attuned to nonverbal cues and feelings difficult to articulate. It is validating what was heard and affirming the dignity and worth of the speaker.
Imagine this scenario:
You need to talk to your husband about something that is very important to you. He is in the den watching football and enjoying a snack. You walk in and ask if you can talk to him about something you feel is quite important. He assures you it is fine with him and you begin to talk. Suddenly he interrupts you with “Excuse me just a minute” as he focuses on the players strategy for going for a touchdown. You begin again. A short while later, he gets up from the chair to turn the television up a little louder and just as you were finishing the most important part of your message, your husband turns to you and says, “Now what were you saying honey?” You decided this is getting nowhere and leave the room.
Now, what exactly happened here? Well, lots of things really, but let us focus on your perception and listening and not your husband.
What did your husband say? His words, or verbal communication, may have had a tiny part in the overall message you picked up. It was your husband’s actions, or nonverbal communication, that became the message for you, and these seemed to be different than his words. While your husband’s words were encouraging you to talk, his actions were saying, “I’m really busy right now and cannot give you my attention.”
You were not only listening to verbal and nonverbal messages but also to “content” and “relationship” messges. You wanted to talk about something that was a content message. When your husband did not have time to share this content message with you, you decided to leave. But what about the relationship message? Your husband seemed to be very supportive and encouraging to you even though he was right in the middle something important to him. How do you want to interpret the relationship message here?
It probably depends on the situation and the past history of the relationship you have had with your husband. Evidently you feel close enough to your husband to talk with him about something really important to you. On the other hand, maybe he is often preoccupied with sports when you want to talk and that might be frustrating to you. You could also look at the kinds of messages you are giving to your husband which affect the relationship messages he gives to you.
You probably listen more to nonverbal, relationship messages simply because a great deal of the communication that goes on between people does not involve words. There are many meanings in a message based on voice tone, facial expressions, eye contact, posture and so forth. Words tend to express content more than relationship, and “body language” or nonverbal communications tends to express relationship more than content.
It is beneficial to remember that verbal and nonverbal communications work together to give meanings. For example, try saying, “thank you, I really appreciated your help” in different tones of voice and observe how the meaning changes. Now add facial expression to voice tone.
Listeners also must pay attention to the content and relationship meanings coming their way in order to make good judgments. Does lack of eye contact mean “I’m guilty” or “I’m distracted” or “I’m thinking?” Effective listening requires us to try to obtain as complete a picture as possible of what the other person means.
Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries.
She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, will be available soon.