With all the talk about expressing ourselves one would think we would be very good at it these days. To the contrary, we have a crisis of self expression and are bombarded with increasing pressure to conform. It takes some courage and energy to be true to yourself.

The pathway to expressing ourselves is closely tied to listening to others. What is active listening? Isn’t that just hearing attentively?

Active listening is participating in the conversation. It is making sure you understand the message and underlying messages your friend wants understood. In the past I used to think I was showing empathy when I finished people’s sentences, or added “I know what you mean, I had the same when…”, and inserted my similar story. As I became more self-reflective I began noticing how at that point the other person stopped sharing. My way of showing empathy was the wrong tool. I also reflected how I felt when a family member had often finished my sentenes (with the wrong assumption) or mirrored my story with their own. Ouch.

This is not empathy because empathy is felt by the receiver. Bringing in your story is autobiographic listening, which is poor quality listening. It turns people off.

So much is lost from communication and relationship every day through poor listening skills. We so easily get lost in our own selves that it can take only a few seconds to tune out or start interpreting through our own experience.  This leads to making wrong assumptions and jumping to conclusions. For the other person, this is a most unsatisfying conversation.

The problem is, you have your own set of values, beliefs and paradigms that your mind is filtering information through to extract meaning. But understanding someone’s message is not about you or your paradigms; it is about mentally stepping into another’s world and enquiry so that you take on the meaning they intended. To show empathy – without which others cannot rely on you –  you need to really listen and visit the other person’s world. It takes effort to ‘stand in someone’s shoes’, you have to build this emotional ‘muscle’.

Active listening is participating in hearing and understanding the intended message. The rewards are like discovering a person’s unique language and being on the same wave length. Communication becomes less about words and semantics and is greatly enriched by an intimate familiarity with the person’s sub-text and real messages. Without a discipline of active listening, communication tends toward argumentative and courtroom-like semantics. With active listening, it’s like the platform changes. Being heard and understood opens the doors to relationship, cooperation and generous loyalty.  Understanding others also comes before you get the right to be understood!

How is your active listening practice? Have you asked your colleagues and team lately? Have you checked with your friends and family?

Active listening is awesomely simple when you look at the list of tools. But awesomely hard to do on a consistent basis. But when it’s hard is when it counts.

Develop in active listening and you will find greater self expression and influence.