Listening – An Undervalued Skill That Brings Results

In today’s exponentially challenging workplace, communication skills are crucial. You need to communicate at all levels, to your department, team, staff, and clients; yes, skillful communication is a no brainer. But an often neglected side to skillful communication is listening. Listening is an innate part of everything we do, and the crucial other side to communicating effectively.

Communicating enables a flow of information and ideas, back and forth, between your various stakeholders. Now listening might seem passive or less energetic than talking, presenting, explaining, convincing, or negotiating, but active listening is in fact, the flip side, the secret sauce to all of the above. Think of listening as an interpersonal skill that will equip you to better uncover and understand the needs, requirements, and sometimes hidden preferences of your stakeholders.

Active listening

We covered Five tips to Active Listening in a previous post:

  1. Close the door and remove distractions.
  2. Don’t interrupt. Reinforce with good body language and occasional verbal reinforcement.
  3. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and empathize with your colleague instead.
  4. Listen to understand first and then listen “between the lines.”
  5. Check for understanding, clarify, and confirm.

In the course of your work, you must listen to a lot of people: your boss, your colleagues and team members, your clients, those who report to you, and those you will recruit, professionally develop, or performance review over time. Potentially, you may have to listen to senior managers, board members, and so on, as well.

Here are five things to think about in a work context that will help you actively listen in any of the above scenarios:

1. Approach any conversation with a self-identified aim that you will learn something. Self-fulfilling prophesy is a strange thing: it usually works. So if you approach a conversation with the attitude that “hey I’ve got this, …and I know exactly what Peter is going to say” then the unfortunate reality is you’re simply not going to learn anything from that conversation. But if you realize that Peter has something to convey, something you may not have heard before, then you will learn something new.

2. Stop Talking! Focus on the conversation and never, ever, multitask. If you’re dealing with a group of people, say a focus group, make sure that you’re only ever doing one thing: actively listening. We now know the human brain simply cannot multitask, so don’t try to; either record the conversation – with permission of course – so you can check back on points later, or have a dedicated note-taker in the room. Try not to worry about being able to respond quickly to what’s being said. Be honest. Say “I’m really listening to what you’re saying, and I don’t have an immediate response.” That’s an acceptable reaction, some comments deserve real reflection and time.

3. Open the discussion wide and then drill down. If you ask specific questions or even closed ones [Yes/No answers] then you shut down the possibilities of more far reaching solutions, more creative conclusions and suggestions. Use open questioning techniques “What’s your sense of ….?” or “How do you see this ….?”

4. Empathize, encourage, and recognize everyone’s contribution! Life lesson from personal experience coming up.

He was the biggest toughest looking guy in the focus group, his contribution to the session was short, clever, and to the point, and I nodded at him to acknowledge it. Twenty minutes later, at coffee break, he took me aside and questioned why I seemed to smile at other speakers’ contributions but barely reacted to what he said. What was wrong with his advice?

Clearly nothing. The wrong lay 1000 percent on my side. Always recognize and respond to contributions, use names where possible, and if you’re smiling, make sure you’re smiling at everyone.

5. Lastly, and a slight corollary to point four, respect everyone’s contributions, and try to keep an open mind. Active listening is neutral.

You don’t have to agree with everyone, but you do have to understand them.

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