I’m sure you remember the teacher telling you, when you were in elementary school, that you need to “be a good listener.” I can still envision the way she modeled the steps of what a good listener does: “lips closed, ears open, hands on desk, feet on floor.” This not so subtle demonstration was followed by a discussion of what it means to be a good listener — being quiet!
Thankfully, I don’t need anyone standing in front of me with one finger on their lips pantomiming “Shhh” to make me listen. As a communications specialist, I well understand the value of listening. There’s no question, in my mind, that a key pillar of effective communication is built on good listening. And it’s far more than merely being quiet. Attentive listening is something I’ve touched on a number of times in the Language Lab blog, most recently in a post called The Gift of Gab.
But good communication requires more than good listening. It also requires a group of other, subtle skills. One such skill is “mirroring.” Simply put, mirroring means repeating key words of the person with whom you’re interacting. It tells that person that you are listening. It also acts as a prompt to encourage the person to continue communicating. I’ve found that mirroring is a particularly useful technique when I’m speaking with someone who is shy, or for any number of other reasons, is somewhat reluctant to be forthcoming.
Mirroring is something that I first learned when I studied Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). If you’re interested, you can read more about NLP here. You’ll also find some additional NLP tips at this website.
Then there’s paraphrasing. It’s similar to mirroring, except that rather than literally using words spoken by the other person, you encapsulate what was said — or your understanding of what was said. This technique makes it possible for the other person to clarify his or her points. And it allows the conversation to advance based on a shared understanding.
It’s essential with the above techniques that you do not introduce your own assumptions or biases into the conversation. Remember, you’re not trying to “lead the witness.” You’re trying to genuinely understand the other person’s ideas, or point of view. Mirroring and paraphrasing simply encourage and stimulate good communication.
The third technique to keep in mind is communicating non-verbally. Our facial expressions, the way we sit, whether or not we use our hands when we speak, can all influence the quality of our interactions. An interesting aspect of non-verbal communication is that you can also put a person at ease by adopting her/his non-verbal style, i.e., sit in a similar manner, do or do not use your hands when speaking, and so on. This subtle mimicking of the other person’s actions is also a form of mirroring.
Of course, the above skills require practice to become a natural part of the way you communicate. After all, being a good communicator is a whole lot more than “lips closed, ears open, hands on desk, feet on floor”!