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ACSM'S Health & Fitness Journal:
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000013
DEPARTMENTS: Take Ten

Ten Steps Health/Fitness Professionals Can Take to Improve Their Listening Skills

Peterson, James A. Ph.D., FACSM

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James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.

1. SAY WHAT?. Be aware of the importance of listening. No matter what their situation, no matter what the objectives of their organization, every working day is a constant ongoing flow of information for health/fitness professionals. Unfortunately, too many individuals focus on “communication” as essentially a by-product of a person’s ability to speak or write. In the process, they overlook or downplay the single most important aspect of effective communication — the ability to listen.

2. PERSONAL PRIORITIES. Make a decision to want to listen. Effective listening requires both a willing mind and a concerted effort. Good listeners make up their minds that the ability to listen is a learned skill that requires considerable personal commitment to develop. Although they may be aware of the traditional doctrine that “everybody wants to talk, few want to think, and nobody wants to listen,” they recognize the inherent value of listening and work at it.

3. COMMON CAUSE. Realize that listening is not waiting a turn to talk. It is important to understand that the absence of talking is not the same as listening. Furthermore, listening is not a competitive exercise in which the first person to take a breath is declared the listener. Rather, listening is both an art and a skill. As an art, it involves obtaining meaning from a situation (e.g., spoken words and nonverbal elements). As a skill, it entails being able to separate fact from statement, innuendo, and accusation.

4. PLAN AHEAD. Don’t allow external factors to disrupt the listening process. Disruptive distractions (e.g., noise in the office, telephone calls, etc.) can create an environment that impedes a person’s ability to listen effectively. Good listeners plan ahead. For example, they try to find a place where every individual involved in the exchange of information can listen without distractions.

5. INTERNAL AFFAIRS. Avoid letting internal distractions, such as the three Ps (preoccupation, pressure, and priority), obstruct the ability to listen. Although they’re not always as easily managed as external distractions, they can be controlled to a certain extent. For example, if health/fitness professionals have something of higher priority, they should do it first and listen later. Furthermore, if they have specific times of the day that tend to be more pressure packed for them, communication situations where listening would be particularly critical should be scheduled around those times.

6. REALLY, TRULY. Listen for what actually is said. In that regard, health/fitness professionals should not make an inviolate assumption about what the speaker is going to say. In addition, they should listen for the context of what is said. All factors considered, words do not mean much outside the context of a person’s experience and situation. Furthermore, individuals also should listen for what is not said, which can be as revealing, and as important, as what actually is said.

7. MORE THAN LEARNING. Focus their attention on the information, ideas, and insights being presented by the speaker. Health/fitness professionals should not sit back and be passive observers. Hearing is passive. Listening is continuously active. Listening is what individuals do with what they hear.

8. BE PATIENT. Be aware of the fact that everyone can’t (shouldn’t) talk at the same time. Somebody must withhold his or her comments. On occasion, a person has to be the listener. When that occurs, individuals should not compromise their listening time by thinking about what they’re going to say next.

9. OPEN MIND. Recognize the need to be objective. Stereotypical thinking, negative attitudes, and personal bias can cloud the message received from a speaker. All factors considered, the greater the listener’s level of objectivity, the better the level of receptivity and clarity to the messages received.

10. CRITICAL LISTENING. Don’t let the type of delivery (e.g., eloquent words, impressive training aids, etc.) override the ability to decipher the message effectively. Some individuals say nothing but with a style that obfuscates the true content of what they said. Other people say a lot but have a difficult time saying it. It is essential for health/fitness professionals to know the difference.

© 2014 American College of Sports Medicine.

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