Methods to ensure effective listening and good communication

They asked me, "Do you dare to do a training", "It will be in a remote format, with 70 people", they explained. "We think it is extremely important that they acquire this knowledge", they stressed. If it's hard enough to be heard face-to-face, it's even harder to be heard remotely!

Discover some methods to ensure effective listening that will guarantee good communication with your interlocutor.
Beatriz Martín

Beatriz Martín

Reading time: 8 min

In the age of hyper-connectivity, where conversations flow through screens and keyboards, it is common to feel that our messages are lost in the digital void. Sometimes, the silence on the other end can be deafening. Is it a technical problem, lack of interest or simply miscommunication?

That is the feeling experienced by all of us who communicate. That is, any human being, because we cannot forget that we all communicate in each of our interactions with others. And just as we send out messages, we need to know if they are being received correctly.

Information, communication and influence

Obviousness, an 8-letter word

I first heard that phrase too many years ago to recognise, at university. It struck me. The first thing I did, as I suppose many of you did, was to count the letters. And yes, there are eight of them. It’s pure information.

It was my first week on the course. I know now that none of us knew what we were talking about when we talked about communication. I thought then that communicating was, indeed, a no-brainer. The second thing I did was to think about why we had been told that phrase and, after analysing it, we answered in the affirmative that it had eight letters and that we didn’t understand why we were bringing it up. We had established a communication with the teacher.

He looked us one by one, straight in the eye, as he syllabified “ob-vie-dad”. He paused (with more drama than necessary) and turned to us and said: “you think you know, but you are here to learn because it is a truism that you have no idea”. The third thing I thought was that I wasn’t going to miss any of his classes. He had managed to influence me. And all that with a 5-word sentence about an 8-letter word.

We can, then, establish a substantial difference between information and communication, which lies in the nature and purpose of the interaction. Information refers only to a set of data processed with the aim of enriching the receiver’s knowledge. Not of the interlocutor, because there is no interlocution, since information is unidirectional.

On the other hand, communication is a dynamic interlocution between several individuals in which information is exchanged with the aim of establishing relationships. For this it is important that the roles of sender and receiver are adopted in an alternative and flexible way. In short, if information is unidirectional and focused on the content of the message, communication is multidirectional and focused on the interaction between the parties.

All this has been classically outlined in Roman Jakobson’s so-called communication model, which analyses the elements of communication on the basis of their linguistic function: expressive, appellative, referential, metalinguistic, poetic and phatic. And what sounds convoluted is actually very simple to see in any communicative interaction:

  • Sender: my teacher.
  • Receiver: the students who were in class that day.
  • Message: Obvious, 8-letter word.
  • Channel: Spoken and body language.
  • Code: Spanish language and cultural coding of gestures.
  • Context: University session at the beginning of the students’ higher education period.
  • Feedback: Spoken and bodily response to the message, establishing interaction with the sender and exchanging roles.

Effective communication

It is precisely at that moment, having achieved effective communication that includes feedback, that the possibility of influencing others opens up. This is where Maslow comes in, who developed the famous hierarchy of human needs that has a direct impact on communication to allow you to build a bond of influence with your interlocutor. According to this author, our actions and reactions are motivated by the need to satisfy certain basic conditions in order to be able to aspire to higher desires. Therefore, the more the message impacts on the needs to be satisfied by our interlocutor, the more effective the communication will be and the greater our influence will be. My teacher knew this. He knew that the moment he looked us in the eye, he would implore our need for self-realisation and knowledge, and he would have us in his pocket. And so he did. But the rest of the universe is not so simple for us.

The broken phone

It is clear. When we represent communication in a diagram with a sender, a receiver and a channel, it seems simple. However, the reality is different. In practice, when you have that brief moment to speak, the challenge is not only to get the receiver’s attention, but also to get the message across and get it exactly as you want it to be received. It is the game of the broken telephone.

The model explained above needs nuances in order for us to ensure effective communication. Let’s imagine that communication works like an orchestra:

There is no homogeneity of code: each musician plays the score in his own way, with slight variations reflecting his personal style. There is no single way of playing music, just as there is no single language code for everyone. The way people speak differs from generation to generation (right, boomers?).

There can be no single channel: An orchestra uses multiple instruments (channels) to create a symphony. Similarly, human communication is multi-channel, combining verbal and non-verbal elements, but also different media, including digital (is there anyone who doesn’t use emoticons?).

We cannot be static: In an orchestra there is no static playing of notes, it is dynamic. Real communication is equally complex and fluid, it cannot be limited by rigid models (does anyone learn a flirting script?).

We must not oversimplify: Just as a symphony cannot be reduced to a few notes, communication cannot be oversimplified without losing important nuances such as noise and communication barriers (am I the only one being interrupted?).

In short, communication must reflect the changing and complex nature of how we express ourselves and connect with others. And that starts with the composer, or sender of the communication. To ensure that communication is effective and that we are actually listened to, the first thing we must look at is the way we address our interlocutors.

If we start our communication without being focused, without taking into account the medium we are using, without adapting our language, without following a structure, without clarity in our expressions… we can give up the battle for lost because they will never listen to us. However, when we are mentally present, paying attention to the feedback of the communication and exchanging the role of communicator and listener, we increase the chances of our message reaching a successful conclusion.

Message received?

So what can we do to ensure that our message is not only heard, but also understood and valued? Preparation and empathy are key. Before communicating, we need to think about the purpose of our message and how it should impact on the receiver. During the communication process, we need to look for listening signals to refocus the communication if necessary.

We have several infallible signals to help us evaluate the effectiveness of our communication and ensure that the message is getting through in a timely manner:

  • Visual cues: It is well known that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Eye contact is a powerful signal of attention. If your interlocutor is looking directly at you, he or she is likely to be focused on what you are saying. Other signals include nodding your head, an open posture and gestures that match the flow of the conversation.
  • Verbal responses: Small notes such as “I understand”, “I see” or “go on” are indications that your message is being processed. Also, if the interlocutor asks relevant questions or gives comments that relate directly to what you have said, it is a good sign that he or she is listening.
  • Paraphrasing and summarising: A recurrent and effective technique in highly distracting environments (e.g. with children) is to ask the interlocutor to summarise what you have said. This not only confirms that you have been heard, but also verifies understanding.
  • Non-verbal feedback: Active listening is also observed in body language and can reveal a lot about a person’s level of attention. If they lean forward, nod or show facial expressions that correspond to the conversation, you are on the right track.
  • Pauses and silences: There are times when we need to “digest” what we are being told. Pauses allow the interlocutor to process the information and formulate a response. If your interlocutor takes a moment before responding, he or she is probably carefully considering what you have said.
  • Distractions: Or rather, the absence of distractions, such as not looking at the phone or not interrupting, can also indicate that the interlocutor is paying attention.
  • Confirmation of understanding: Dare to ask for direct confirmation by asking, “Does what I am saying make sense?” or “Can you explain how you see the situation?” to assess attention and understanding.
  • Changes in behaviour: The final test. If after the conversation, you observe a change in behaviour or actions that reflect the discussion, you can be sure that your message was heard and taken into account. If not, you should make a second appointment.

Years after finishing my degree, I met the professor again. He had finally retired. He didn’t remember me (on the other hand, that’s normal), but I have never been able to forget that sentence: “Obviousness, 8-letter word”. Often, what we consider obvious can be an enigma to others, and vice versa. True mastery in communication lies not in the ability to speak or write, but in the ability to understand and be understood. It is a journey that never ends, because there is always something new to learn, some prejudice to challenge, some ‘truism’ to rediscover.

Now I have to prepare a training for 70 people in a remote format. Hopefully they will keep some of my messages and remember it years later.


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