Living Vibrantly in the Second Half of Life
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Experience Life Article about "Fearless Aging"

April, 2016 issue of AARP Bulletin

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The Most Important Communication Skill
March 28, 2016
What is the most important skill you could improve to help you communicate better? Maybe you would like to be a better public speaker or express your feelings more effectively. If you are like most people, you didn't identify being a better listener.

Years ago I taught a leadership program called "Adventures in Attitudes". At the beginning of the program, participants completed an assessment of their greatest communication needs. By far, most people chose "Giving a speech.". One option, however, was almost never chosen. "Being a better listener" was always at the bottom of communication skills participants wanted to improve. Communications experts put listening at the top of the list of important communication skills. The best way to improve communication is to improve listening.
Being a good listener improves relationships in all aspects of our lives. The importance of good listening skills is part of the curriculum in three courses I teach at a local college. In my encore career class, students learn how listening helps build their networks. In positive aging, they learn how listening wards off loneliness by building connections. And in my intentional living class, students learn how listening improves relationships and strengthens friendships.

As we move into our encore years, we often lose what John Nelson in What Color is Your Parachute for Retirement calls our "relationship generators" (places like work and school where we typically find our friends) and find ourselves needing to develop new relationships and improve old ones. Listening is a powerful component of creating and maintaining healthy relationships. As Dale Carnegie said in his best-selling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, "You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."

Some people seem to instinctively know how to be good listeners. My four-year-old granddaughter often asks her father at the dinner table, "Daddy, how was your day today?" and she loves to say to me, "Grandma, let's have a chat" and then proceeds to ask me a question. Then she will say, "OK, Grandma, now it's your turn to ask me a question." Good listener or not, anyone can learn to listen better. Unlike hearing ability, which may diminish with age, listening ability can be improved at any age.

Five Steps to Better Listening
  1. Decide to listen. Set an intention to focus on what the speaker is telling you.
  2. Be patient. Let the speaker tell the whole story. Pauses are okay. Don't interrupt, finish a sentence or jump in with your similar experience.
  3. Ask questions. Draw out the details by asking questions like, "Then what?", "How did you feel?" and "What did you do?"
  4. Empathize. Acknowledge that you are aware of the speaker's emotion and, if appropriate, share the feeling. Be happy, sad, excited with them.
  5. Pay attention to tone of voice and body language. Most communication is non-verbal. Some sources claim only seven percent of communication is verbal.
As a sign in the faculty lounge at my college said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Listening shows that your care.
©2010 Ageinista L.L.C