Ridge Zeller Therapy’s Sarah Jordan Strong, M.S., CCC-SLP, shares tips on improving listening skills:
Probably the best representation of how many of us listen I’ve seen came during a meeting for a student I was seeing for some minor sound errors. He was having some trouble with talking over other students and myself, so I had done a short discussion on whole body listening. When I got to the part about how your heart and brain should also be listening, he vehemently shook his head and said “No! My mom says when other people are talking, I should be thinking about what I want to say.”
This didn’t sound like his mom, and I had a meeting coming up with her. When we sat down together, I brought it up in the hopes that she could clarify it with him. She started laughing and said “That’s literally the opposite of what I tell him. I say he should be paying attention to the person who’s talking and not what he wants to say.”
It was funny. Clearly, he had just taken what he wanted to hear from that conversation. But it also got me thinking – how often do we all do this? We listen for what we want to hear, we think about other things, and we interrupt. I know I do. Sometimes I’m thinking about what I want to say instead of really listening. At home, sometimes I’m messing with my phone or composing a to-do list in my head. I might also be mentally predicting how my communication partner’s comment is going to turn out, and getting ready to comment on that rather than what the person is actually saying.
We’re all busy, and we all have a hundred things on our minds at any given time. But we’re probably doing ourselves and our loved ones a disservice by only halfway listening. In honor of NPR’s Storycorps’ National Day of Listening coming up at the end of this month. I’d like to share some listening strategies that I’ve found helpful throughout my career.
Whole Body Listening
I mentioned this above. It is used quite a bit in my field of speech pathology, and it sounds obvious but when you really think about it, you are likely not doing it as often as you assume. The basic tenets of whole body listening are:
• Eyes are looking at the speaker
• Ears are hearing
• Mouth is quiet
• Hands are still
• Feet are quiet on the floor
• Brain is thinking about what is being said
• Heart is caring about what is being said
As adults, I think we’re most likely to slip up on the last two.
Listening Strategies for Communication Disorders
This is a very broad category. Communication disorders can include aphasia due to a stroke, articulation delays causing reduced intelligibility, language delays, reduced social language due to autism or other disorders, and a whole host of other differences in expected communication. I work with both children and adults, across a huge spectrum of disabilities, and these are the strategies I’ve found most helpful:
• Practice whole body listening, as outlined above.
• Put everything else down and devote your entire attention.
• Choose when to predict what the other person is saying. If a loved one has a communication disorder, it’s very likely that sometimes you’ll have to. When there are 35 people behind you in line at the airport and your spouse can’t quite say “Thank you,” you’re very likely going to have to step in. Likewise, if your child is trying to explain to the doctor what hurts, it’s important to clarify. But if you’re sitting down together with no time constraints, let the person finish.
• Make an effort to read body language. This may clarify the person’s message, or just add some additional information.
• If you need to “translate,” and many people do, there are often ways to do so that seem like a natural part of the conversation. “He said we had lunch at In-N-Out” vs. “Oh, yeah, we did have In-N-Out for lunch-we love it” may seem minimal, but the second is a perfectly normal social interaction, while the first is clearly a compensatory strategy.
• Don’t pretend you understand if you don’t. This can be really hard. Some interactions may end without understanding having been achieved, and that’s frustrating for everyone.
• Find some activities that don’t rely entirely on communication. It’s important to do communicatively challenging ideas for the sake of improvement, but no one can do 24-7 language practice. For kids, this might be a simple game (the card game War is a great one) or a puzzle. For adults, games can also be good, or you might have a TV show you both enjoy watching. Just set aside some time when you can be together and let the language come or not.