Communication is the key to personal, financial, and entrepreneurial success. Seminars constantly tout the importance and crucial role of effective communication, especially in order to succeed at business. However, one aspect of communication skills that is often overlooked is the effective use of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication can be summed up as all the other parts of language that give us visual and non-audible clues in order to correctly interpret the meaning and intent of the speaker in a conversation. Non-verbal communication can be communicated through gestures and touch – also known as Haptic communication – by body language or posture, by facial expression and eye contact. Non-verbal communication can even be communicated through objects such as clothing, hairstyles or even architecture, symbols and graphics.
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For example, when one goes to a job interview, khaki pants can convey a range of meaning anywhere from ‘oh, I’m here’ to the ‘well-dressed and ready to conquer’, all based on the style, quality, cut, and fit of the pant. Simplistic yes, but tried and proven as well. By the same token, wearing blue jeans to a job interview, no matter how dressy the pants are, it sends an underlying message of casualness that may not be the chord to strike, depending on the position and industry. Also, speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, which include factors like voice quality, emotion and speaking style, as well as the spoken rhythm, word intonation or inflection and stress. Dance is also regarded as a nonverbal communication. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, graphical or design arrangements or the use of emoticons. However, much of the study of nonverbal communication has focused on face-to-face interaction, where it can be classified into three main focuses: environmental conditions where communication takes place, the physical characteristics of the speakers, and behaviors of the speakers during interaction.
While not a traditionally defined form of non-verbal communication, effective listening skills are arguably the most prized set of communication skills for any businessperson to develop in order to achieve success. Furthermore, effective listening skills impact not only the professional sphere, but also the personal and emotional health and overall well being of a person. Many experts disagree on the number of specific components that encompass an effective listener, yet there are certain key elements that are generally accepted as guidelines to make a listener more effective and serve to enhance the quality of communication between the involved parties. “Listening is one of those special skills that, because we can hear, we tend to believe that we can automatically listen. Yet for many people hoping to facilitate, listening is the most difficult skill to master. As I write this I am remembering one of today’s well-worn clichés, often used by those who aren’t listening: “I hear what you are saying, but…” “So says Mr. Trevor Bentley, who has developed a very specific set of criteria to define an effective listener.
In his article, “The special skills of listening,” he states that specific situations require specific responses or set of listening skills. According to Bentley, one can narrow these instances to six main groups, which consist of monologue, dialogue, conversation, discussion, debate, and argument. Webster’s defines a monologue to be an extended uninterrupted speech by a character in a drama. The character may be speaking his or her thoughts aloud, directly addressing another character, or speaking to the audience, especially the former. Monologues are common across the range of dramatic media (plays, films, animation, etc.). In daily life, a monologue refers to that one individual who talks incessantly upon all subjects, often without pause to consider the effect of any of their utterances upon those in their immediate vicinity. On the other hand, dialogue is an interaction of sorts, its everyday basis and counterpart is a conversational exchange between two or more people. Now, a conversation is by definition communication between multiple people. It is a social skill that can be accomplished by the average individual. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from one another. For a successful conversation, the partners must achieve a workable balance of contributions. A successful conversation includes repeating, answering, creating and countering connections between the speakers or things and topics that the speakers know. For this to happen, those engaging in conversation must find a topic on which they both can relate to in some sense. They speak or from personal experience or from other’s observations and knowledge. Those engaging in conversation naturally tend to relate the other speaker’s statements to himself or herself. They may insert aspects of their lives into their replies, to relate to the other person’s opinions or points of conversation. Again, all these are examples of different forms of listening.
Finally there are discussions, debates, and arguments. While one can argue that these are all escalating forms of the same condition, the general meaning and reference of these three words is an explanation of an issue or a topic, compared and contrasted according to logical rules, and factually affirmed by persuasion and logic to declare one viewpoint in better standing than the other. Bentley recommends that in order to maximize communication in each of these situations one should chose a level on which to listen – again, based upon the situation – and to use a combination of directive, facilitative and active listening to have the most effective communication occur. His eight stages of listening cover non-listening, passive listening, judgmental listening, attentive listening, visual listening, reflective listening, active/creative listening, and directive listening. While the Bentley system has very logical and effective solutions to many communication dilemmas and situations, other experts take a more instinctive and generalized view of effective listening and non-verbal communication.
In the article “Turn listening into a powerful presence”, Richard Harris states that
“Better-than-average listeners are keenly aware of the following important issues: partnership, reviewing systematically, effort, star events, empathy, neutralizing snap judgments, and tenacity.” Listening is not by any stretch of the imagination a passive endeavor if practiced correctly or effectively. As a listener, one is always trying to receive or understand the meaning of the conversation, while dealing with all the non-verbal communicational clues on a subconscious level. If you are blindfolded in a room with some friends, you could participate in conversation actively. However, your responses and understanding could range from a little bit off to very misdirected, depending on how many visual cues and gestures you miss due to the blindfold. Active listening is not just generating responses to sounds or answering the question. It requires the listeners to understand, interpret, and analyze what is heard. Today, the ability to listen is an invaluable skill in interpersonal communication. It improves personal relationships by reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, as well as fostering understanding. Harris stresses the importance of practicing the issues that arise when holding a conversation, fully confident that a ‘normal’ person can adapt and learn these techniques in order to become a more effective communicator.
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Sometimes effective listening is simply making sure that one is completely engaged in the conversation, suspending judgment, and making evaluations after all the issues have been discussed. However, it is not natural for humans to listen in this form, and patience and practice are key aspects to developing natural listening skills, which will eventually feel like a normal part of the mental acrobatics exercised on a daily basis by anyone who must communicate in any form. Effective listening is essential for anyone who wants to perform at his or her best, work easily and gracefully, and learn effectively. Few people realize that the art of listening has everything to do with intuition and little to do with the mental gymnastics of trying to concentrate on the words themselves. As you begin to see listening as an art and conversation as something that creates beauty, you will begin to understand how your own thoughts interfere with the experience. One expert argues that the less thinking that goes on during a conversation, the more effective the listener is, because more of the actual conversation is retained and absorbed. (Gunn) This particular expert states that in his personal research, the more open and clear a person is when engaged in conversation, the more recall is available after the conversation. Intuition and feelings are also very important to this particular theorist. For effective listening, this theory requires one to be very aware of the feelings that are being inspired throughout the course of the conversation, to be stored in the memory and analyzed after the conversation is over, which one presumably will have more recall thereof since one did not get mentally distracted by emotions or thoughts during the conversation.
Effective listening is also closely related to non-verbal communicational forms such as gestures. Gestures are another tool that can be used to maximize a listener’s input on the conversation and its outcome. While this specific tool is very culture based, it can be very effective when interpreted and practiced correctly. One of the most common cultures to use gestures in the United States is the Latin Americans. Gestures allow individuals to communicate a variety of feelings and thoughts, often together with body language in addition to words when they speak. For example, in the Cuban culture there is quite an amount of hand gesturing that leads throughout a conversation. Depending on the speed of the gesture shows the mental or emotional state of the person doing the speaking; if smooth motions are made with the hands, the words being said are meant to pacify or to be taken calmly, regardless of their content. Though gestures are not part of syntactic language, their processing takes place in the same areas of the brain used by speech and sign language.
Another simple form of listening is reflective listening. Reflective listening is a communication strategy that involves two key steps: to comprehend a speaker’s thought, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to verify the idea has been understood correctly. It attempts to “reconstruct what the client is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to the client”. Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than the more general methods of active listening. It arose from Carl Rogers’ school of client-centered therapy in counseling theory. (Hughes) It is important to observe the other person’s actions and body language. Having the ability to interpret anyone’s body language allows the listener to develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s words and possibly even the intent of the conversation, which may or may not be audibly stated. Having heard, the listener may restate or paraphrase what the speaker is saying. This is a technique for reassuring the speaker of one’s undivided attention. It really does not imply understanding or agreement. In emotional conversations, a good listener may intuit or sense underlying feelings and emotions. For example, when in an argument, one would say, “I sense you are angry. Can you tell me why?” Again, the interplay between the non-verbal clues and tools such as gestures and reflection all play a role in maximizing the effectiveness of the listener.
While one cannot make a judgment call about the best way to listen, it is clear that the most definitive way to become an effective listener is to be mentally ready and to challenge oneself to practice skills that lead to naturally recalling and understanding everything that is said and intimated in conversation. While listening has much to do with the physical ability of the person, the intellectual application for effectiveness is more of a mental and psychological exercise that can only improve with constant practice. Not to trash the visually impaired, but the eyes are consistently the best source for all the cues that guide effective listeners. For many in the business world, the time spent becoming an effective listener will be priceless in terms of communication that can open doors and opportunities. Furthermore, an effective listener that applies their professional success to their personal life can also ensure a very productive and emotionally satisfying life, because all of us have something to say, and everyone wants to be heard. In the words of Bishop TD Jakes, “Listen with your ears. The ears work better when windpipes are closed. Listen with your mind. Many times words are based on a point of reference that you may not be aware of. Listen with your heart. Many times words do not convey what’s in the heart; so when you listen, hear what is said but also what is meant. Compassion is a critical part of understanding. It is difficult to love people without understanding them. Love seeks to understand. Listening with your heart will take away your natural propensity to be selfish. Listen with your heart. Many times words do not convey what’s in the heart; so when you listen, hear what is said but also what is meant. Compassion is a critical part of understanding. It is difficult to love people without understanding them. Love seeks to understand. Listening with your heart will take away your natural propensity to be selfish.” Sound words to guide the spiritual health of his parishioners, but also very applicable to any successful individual in today’s world.
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