A wife asked her husband, “Have you heard the story about the dirty window?”
“No,” he answered. “What is it?”
“Oh, well, you couldn’t see through it anyway,” she responded.
The next day the husband thought he would repeat this to a neighbor, so he asked, “Have you heard the story about the window you couldn’t see through?”
“No,” replied the neighbor. “How does it go?”
“Oh, well, it’s too dirty to tell anyway,” he answered. Unfortunately, many of our communication situations follow this same model of confusion.
What you hear is not always what the speaker intended. How can you make sure you listen and assimilate what the talker wanted you to understand?
One way is to interrupt with a question about whatever is unclear. This is one of the few times you can interrupt without offending. You show your concern for correct interpretation of the message. Ask for clarification about a word, story, an assertion, or a conclusion the person makes. If you don’t ask right then, you risk being distracted by what was unclear and missing the rest of the message.
When he or she finishes speaking, paraphrase what you felt the person said. Begin your paraphrase by saying, “What I hear you saying is…” Quickly you will know if you got the message the way the speaker intended. This is especially important anytime you are receiving instructions or directions.
Perhaps give an example of the meaning you interpret when he or she finishes his or her comment. If the example does not fit, the talker can clarify and you get the real message. Giving an example will also reinforce the fact that you were really listening and seeking to understand. This is a high compliment to the talker and will increase your credibility with the person.
Apply the mental discipline of concentrating on the content of the message you are listening to by asking yourself as you listen, “What is the point?” Or “What is the meaning thus far?” If you feel there is no point, you can interrupt by saying, “I’m not sure I understand, could you say that again?” Usually, this will encourage the talker to be more concise when he or she gives the message the second time.
Above all, if you are giving the person your attention as he or she speaks—give ALL your attention; don’t be doing other things. If you can’t give your undivided attention at that time, say, “Can I call you back in a few minutes when I can give better attention to what you’re saying?” or “I have an appointment in a few minutes, and I am having trouble concentrating on your message. I don’t want to miss anything you are saying. Could we continue this conversation first thing tomorrow morning?”
Certainly being able to retell a joke accurately is not a significant commentary on your listening skills. Misinterpreting the message of your manager, your spouse, or the service manager at the car dealership, however, can create daily frustrations and hardships that can be avoided if you apply these techniques.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University. He works with organizations whose people want to speak and listen more effectively to increase professional and personal success. He can be reached at 800.727.6520, or visit www.sboyd.com for free articles and resources to improve your communication skills.