Hearing with your ears wide open

You have something to say that you think is crucial to impart to your colleagues, but how can you make sure they are taking it in? And can you be sure the message is always getting through to you? Take a lesson in the art of active listening.

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While Soren Swirsch, a software developer and consultant, was giving his first workshop in Dubai, he was quite happy with the way it was going. Everyone in the room nodded at him and when he asked if they understood him, the answer was a resounding yes. But after the workshop Mr Swirsch suddenly realised that, while they had heard what he was saying, few were actually listening. That workshop taught him that there are cultural differences to the way people listen. "Especially Indians would never say if they did not pay attention or understand what you say," Mr Swirsch says. "For them, it seems to be impolite to say that you did not make a point clear." A study by four academics in the US, Germany and Israel backed up what he had discovered: that there are definite distinctions in listening in different cultures. The study was by Christian Kiewitz, a research assistant, and James B Weaver, an associate professor, both at Auburn University in Alabama; Prof Hans-Bernd Brosius of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat in Munich; and Prof Gabriel Weimann of Haifa University in Israel. Their research, released in 1997, showed that in the US, Europe and the Middle East there are differences in the way people from different cultures listen. They determined there are four different listening styles, which they referred to as people, action, content and time. While Americans use a people and time style, Europeans used the action style. In Middle East, the content style dominated. But can we learn to listen actively, despite our culture? Louella Walker, an active listening trainer at Spearhead Gulf business training in Dubai, offers classes to the whole range of employees, from trainees to managers. Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. The idea of listening carefully does not sound too hard, but there are distractions that can be quite subtle. For example, when listening to someone who has an unusual accent, the listener may be drawn into thinking about where the speaker comes from, rather than fully attending to what the person is saying. "There are so many reasons why people do not listen carefully," Ms Walker says. "Most people listen much faster, then speak. So we tend to jump to the conclusion even before we have heard the entire story. We think we know what the other is going to say and stop listening." The most important point in learning how to listen actively is to not interrupt, even if you think you have something to say, she advises. Ms Walker says women are more active listeners than men. "You could say that women are better listeners because they (are more comfortable) with the emotional side. There is also another reason: men only use one of the brain's hemispheres to listen while women use both." The people in Mr Swirsch's workshop seemed to be listening carefully but they obviously were not. Sometimes you may not be able to positively affirm that someone is listening to you. Ms Walker suggests the body language of the person you are talking to can give you clues as to whether they are really listening. She says you should also try to find out if they can summarise what they just heard. That's what Mr Swirsch is doing now. When he gives workshops he always asks questions of his audience ? just to make sure. business@thenational.ae