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Active Listening as a Presenter

Active Listening Takes You to the Next Level as a Communicator

BY MARK W. HARDWICK, PhD.

Extraordinary presenters not only inform their audience, they also listen to them. By listening, you know if the audience understands the ideas, information, and knowledge being presented. After asking a question and listening to responses, you have a way to evaluate what they are learning and if the material is meeting their needs and expectations. Active listening is NOT the same as hearing! Hearing is first and consists of the perception of sound. Listening, is second and involves an attachment of meaning to the aural symbols. Passive listening occurs when the receiver has little motivation to listen or is distracted. Active listening, with a purpose, is used to gain information, to determine how another person feels, and to understand both.

Active listening can be one of our most powerful communication tools! Be sure to use it!

Part of the listening process is getting feedback by aligning the message so the intention of the original communicator is understood by the second communicator. This is done by paraphrasing the words of the sender and restating the sender's feelings or ideas in your own words, not just repeating their words. Your words should be saying, "This is what I understand your feelings to be, am I correct?" It not only includes verbal responses, but nonverbal. Nodding your head or squeezing their hand to show agreement, dipping your eyebrows to show you don't quite understand , or sucking air in deeply and blowing out hard shows that you also are exasperated with the situation.

Carl Rogers listed four main categories of feedback. They are listed in the order in which they occur most frequently in daily conversations (notice that we make judgments more often than we try to understand):

  1. Evaluative: Makes a judgment about the worth, goodness, or appropriateness of the other person's statement.
  2. Interpretive: Paraphrasing - attempt to explain what the other person’s statement means.
  3. Supportive: Attempt to assist or bolster the other communicator.
  4. Probing: Attempt to gain additional information, continue the discussion, or clarify a statement.

Often, when we think of communication, we think of speaking, presenting, writing -  delivering a message in some way. But an effective communicator is also adept at receiving messages. You won't nudge people toward a goal if they don't feel that they have input, that they are heard and understood, and that the vision they're working toward is also theirs. Listening to your followers is the only way you can make this happen.

Withhold judgment and evaluation.  Listen carefully and with an open mind--if you're defensive, you may miss critical information. Don't formulate your answer while a person is still speaking. Watch for subtle body language that may offer extra clues to the speaker's true meaning. Also, hold eye contact. If you don't' look at the person who is speaking to you, you can't establish trust. As a leader, you want followers to trust you and believe in you.

Focus on the other person; do not multitask. Show respect for people by putting aside your paper, lunch, etc., and don't take phone calls. You'll be better regarded, and you'll save time. By "doing it right the first time," there won't be misunderstandings or any need to repeat information. Be ready to take notes or flip chart comments as the person speaks.

Allow the speaker to finish. Don't interrupt. Don't change the subject. Don't finish sentences for the speaker. Remain quiet until you're sure the speaker has completed his or her thoughts.

Read between the lines. As you listen to the speaker, listen for what might be left unsaid. It's not always easy for a person to approach someone in a more senior position and tell it like it is. If you want to get an honest opinion of some of your ideas and actions, you'll need to probe. You'll also need to value that feedback and the person who gave it to you. Never shoot the messenger.

Outline your understanding. Once the person is finished speaking, reiterate what you believe to be the main ideas, issues, etc. State them simply and, if possible, try to "rank" them from most important to least. At each step, ask the speaker if you've correctly heard the message. Take the time to be certain, or you've both simply wasted time.

Underline major points. Once you and the speaker agree on the main ideas that have been uncovered, focus your attention on one or two of the most important: What needs to be done right now to make the speaker--and you--acknowledge that something positive has been accomplished? What else can be done in the future? Set a date to revisit these main ideas and to discuss progress.

Test the waters. Take what you've learned and test it with others. What are others feeling and thinking? Is this an isolated issue? Don't take it any less seriously but if it's a "movement" of sorts, you'll need to address it differently. Testing the waters allows you to explore the real needs, fears and hopes of your followers and incorporate them into your shared vision. Remember, if you're trying to move people in a new direction, you must know where they're coming from.

The audience doesn’t always need leaders to agree with them; but they always need to feel the leader cares enough to listen. A presenter who has good listening skills possesses the one characteristic that distinguishes themselves from other presenters. Work hard to make yourself that type of presenter.

Keep cool if a questioner disagrees with you. You are a professional! No matter how hard you try, not everyone in the world will agree with you!