Communication is essential. There is no way around it. No matter what industry you work in or how you spend your time, you need to be able to communicate effectively with those around you. 

In the last article we discussed the four parts of communication: the sender, receiver, medium, and barriers. This month we will continue to dig deeper into what it means to be excellent communicators, starting with listening. 

When we talk about communication, we tend to focus on, well, the talking part of it. We want to make sure that we are saying the right things and delivering the right message. But that is only half of communication. We need to be excellent listeners in order to be active receivers in the communication cycle. 

System Thinking

In order to talk about becoming great listeners, we first have to learn about System Thinking

System One is our typical operating system. This is where we go on auto-pilot. It relies on previous information, biases, and heuristics to help us predict what’s going to happen. Therefore, we don’t spend a lot of effort thinking about what to do, we just act. 

System Two, however, is where we exist when we think before acting. We are forced into this system when encountering new and unfamiliar situations. But we can also improve our mental stamina and attention when we shift into System Two more often. 

Have you ever turned down the street to go back to your old home from work after you just moved? That would be because your brain defaulted into System One instead of realizing that you actually need to take a different route. 

The reason that System Thinking is so important when it comes to being good listeners is that we often are operating out of System One when we listen and can therefore miss important details or information. When in System One, our brain predicts what the sender is going to say next and auto-completes the thought instead of waiting for the information to come. Because of this, we can often mentally race ahead and be thinking about what we’re going to say or do next instead of being present with the message that the sender is trying to give you. 

Active Listening 

The way to be an active listener, a phrase you’ve likely heard before, is to shift into System Two thinking. Many of the tools that are typically recommended for active listening apply to System Two thinking. For example, taking notes while the sender takes their turn so you can focus on what they’re saying instead of trying to remember your thoughts for later. Or you can repeat back what you think they meant when they are finished communicating to make sure you’re on the same page. Or asking clarifying questions and seeking to truly understand the message instead of just getting on to your turn. 

The Golden Rule

When correcting a child’s behavior, we often flip the tables on them to get them to empathize and see things from another perspective: “how would you feel if Tommy came over and took this train car away from you while you were playing with it?” 

As adults, we generally have a good grasp on this, but it’s worth asking: “how would you feel if someone was not actually listening to you but instead was planning out what they wanted to say next?” 

When we speak, we know that we are doing so with purpose and because we have something we want to communicate. So why would we expect differently from others? If they are speaking to you, especially in a workplace setting or a scenario where information is being imparted, it’s because they saw fit for you to receive the message they are trying to convey. So we should do everything in our power to accurately understand the message being given. 

Using System Two thinking and other active listening techniques will help you become a better communicator by upholding the often overlooked actor in communication: the receiver. 

If you want to learn more about Systems Thinking we recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Gracie McBride is the Content and Systems Management Coordinator for The Crossroad.