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Are you listening?
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 12/31/2007

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

One of the most significant actions one can take to communicate effectively is called active listening. Some say that because people have two ears and one mouth, they should hear twice as much as they speak.

Listening in a stressful situation is not an easy function. One of the major reasons this is a challenge is the “GAP” problem. The average person speaks at a rate of approximately 125 words per minute. The average human mind can receive and analyze approximately 400 words per minute. What does your mind do while it is receiving the 125 words? Daydream, think about the future as well as the past, and of course come up with its own stories to better the one it is currently hearing.

One of the foundational keys to good listening is the ability of the listener to use body language to demonstrate interest. Interest is communicated by facing the person, having good eye contact, responding with facial expressions, and head nodding. The speaker will be able to see that you are listening and interested in what they are saying.

Knowing the purpose of listening is also a key to effective listening. It is to gather information, and not to give advice, or throw in your own better story or information, or judge what the person is saying. You want to obtain information to internalize the meaning of the story. Doing anything else will cause the speaker to stop, which ends active listening. The following are barriers that will negatively impact effective listening:
  • Judgment: Once a speaker feels judged, he will stop talking, therefore ending the relay of information. Regardless of how you feel, suspend your judgment.

  • “One up”: Even though you may have similar stories or experience, do not tell them. Just let the person talk. If you interject your information, the speaker may feel judged and stop talking.

  • Advice: If you immediately give advice, the speaker most likely will stop communicating. Most speakers know what needs to be done already; they simply have a great need to be heard. Let them fulfill that need.

  • Jump to conclusions:
  • Don’t jump to conclusions; let the speaker interject her own conclusions.
  • Fix it:
  • If the speaker is having some difficulties in relaying the information don’t try to fix the relay. Let her talk it out.
  • Threatening:
  • When the speaker has done something questionable, don’t threaten - that’s being judgmental, and will shut down open communication. Keep your opinion out of the conversation until the right time to interject it, just let the person talk.
Once all the information has been communicated, you can then decide what to do with it. Here is what you can do to enhance your listening skills:
  • Demonstrate supportive non-verbal cues to show interest. You really want to hear what the speaker has to say. Believe what the speaker has to say is important to them, and relay that you want to help with his problem.

  • Because of the gap problem, you must concentrate and focus on what the speaker is saying. Listen for key words and phrases; oftentimes a person will bring up points and issues, which are important to them and maybe even you.

  • Once those key words and phrases are expressed, identify their mood and intensity. Statements are made with varying intensity. High intensity statements may be danger signs. Genuinely accept her feelings, whatever they are, and have confidence in the speaker’s capacity to eventually find a solution.

  • Keep the individual talking: Remember, as the person is talking, you are gathering valuable information. Paraphrase what the speaker has said to be sure that you fully understood what they were relaying, and ask questions only when you have to. The one asking questions is really controlling the conversation, and if the speaker feels controlled they may stop talking.
  • There are many skills that can be used when listening to others. Non-verbal behavior tells other people a great deal about your willingness to communicate with them. There are five key behaviors that will communicate to others your openness to hearing what they have to say and that you are listening to them. A way to remembering these key behaviors are to think of S.P.E.A.R.
    • STANCE – Remember how you are standing when talking to someone. Your shoulders should be turned slightly away from the other person. Keep your weapon side away from the individual, especially when closing the gap and moving into their body space.

    • Have an open POSTURE. Don’t cross your arms in front of you, and don’t cross your legs if you are sitting. Stand in front of the other person in the ready position. Hands are used to gesture or are comfortably clasped together.

    • Have good EYE contact. It is the key to effective communications. Look directly at the person when he is speaking and when you are responding.

    • A>/strong>TTENTIVE behavior. Weight is on the front portion or balls of the feet, assertively digesting the information that the individual is relaying.

    • RELAX. Be yourself. As you learn this skill, it may be difficult to relax because you are concentrating on your new behaviors while watching theirs, but with practice and repetition it will become easier. Interacting with others in a relaxed, calm manner will eventually elicit a like response from the other person.
    These tips will not only make you a better listener, but they also will let others know you are interested in what they have to say. And you might be pleasantly surprised to find that the same courtesy is extended to you when you express your thoughts and ideas to others.

    Other articles by Barnhart:
    The ultimate Use-of-Force report, 11/26/07 Understanding aggressive youth, 10/29/07


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    2. Robbie on 02/02/2008:

      My state administrator forwarded this article to me and to our health services administrator. I thought the article was very good. It made me feel a bit guilty about the manner in which I "listen" to my own teenaged children. However, at the end of the article, you commented on 5 behaviors, saying they can be remembered as S.P.E.A.R., but you never said what that stood for. Since I can clearly see my own deficiencies in active listening, I would like to know what the mnemonic represents.

    3. Robbie on 02/02/2008:

    4. Gene Atherton on 01/03/2008:

      Corrections is a profession that grooms or supports people for aggressively talking, knowing the right answers, with urgency. Very often the leaders that emerge are not good listeners. Good listening skills are far more valuable in gaining information and building critical relationships than most realize. All leads to a safer environment. It is refreshing to seem some explaination and guiding principles as part of a training experience.

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