By Phil Stella
Listening? What does that have to do with your job as a business professional? Well … a lot, when you view your role as a workplace communicator and problem-solver for your internal and/or external customers.
You spend a large part of your day verbally communicating important messages to important people – customers, staff, colleagues, bosses, suppliers, partners, etc. And listening is a critically important part of that verbal communication process. Yet we tend to be terrible listeners, remembering very little of what we hear.
So, here are 10 simple – but not easy – best-practice strategies to make listening work for you!
- Stop Confusing Hearing with Listening — “I hear you …” we like to respond. Well, of course we hear you. Hearing is a constant automatic physiological activity. We hear everything all the time. Listening is very different. Listening is a conscious decision to pay attention to and deal with what we are hearing. Hearing doesn’t take practice – listening does. To make listening work, you must commit to do it … and to do it correctly.
- Listen on Three Levels — There are three components to any face-to-face interaction – the words we say, the tone of voice used to deliver those words and the visual cues from body language that accompany those words. When we listen, we must decode the factual content of the words, be sensitive to the feelings expressed by the tone of voice and observe the visual cues from body language. If all three “messages” are consistent, the intent is reinforced and understood. But, if the tone and/or body language contradict the words, we get confused and typically believe what we feel or see the most. This tri-level of listening takes concentration and effort. So does transmitting a consistent tri-level message.
- Don’t Multi-task — You can’t talk to yourself and listen effectively to someone else at the same time. When you daydream, think of more interesting things than what you’re hearing or make decisions too quickly about the message or the messenger, then you’re talking to yourself and not listening completely. Multi-tasking is an easy trap to fall into because our brains can process more bits of data than we have to process when listening to someone speaking at 120 words per minute. It’s what we do with that extra brain capacity that gets us in trouble. If we commit to listen intensely on three levels, that should take about all the brainpower we have.
- Manage Your Feelings — When we feel the message is boring or too long or we’ve heard it all many times before … we get in trouble. When we feel the messenger is not worthy of our respect because he or she is different from us – different gender, generation, race, ethnic background, educational or experience level … we get in trouble. When we feel we already know the answer to the question and begin “rehearsing” it before the person finishes talking … we get in trouble. When we feel the person is criticizing or attacking us and we get mad or defensive … well, you get the point.
- Focus on the Message — Use your excess brainpower productively to avoid getting in trouble. Keep focusing on the facts, tone, and visual components, but don’t jump ahead. Regularly pause to “play back” what you’ve heard by repeating or rephrasing the words and recognizing the feelings expressed by the tone or visual cues. Ask for validation. For example, “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re not happy because the project is two weeks behind schedule and 20% over budget already. Is that correct?” Whatever answer the messenger gives you is the correct answer. Don’t argue – take ownership for the miscommunication – even when it’s not your fault – clarify and move on.
- Take Brief Notes — When listening to someone describing a situation or a problem, take notes to capture important facts and feelings. But, keep them brief so you can devote most of your attention to the messenger, not the note pad. Use your notes for your periodic repeat/rephrase “playbacks”. Ask for a short pause when you need one to catch up with the messenger.
- Don’t Confuse Empathy With Sympathy — When the messenger is expressing strong feelings or complaining about a problem, it’s important to acknowledge those feelings. Sympathy suggests a shared experience … “Been there, done that.” We feel compelled to say, “I understand what you mean.” But, if we can’t directly relate to the situation because we’ve never experienced a similar one, we can’t really understand. The upset messenger is likely to know that and throw our words back at us. How do you respond to ‘How do you know how I feel when you’ve never ______?’ Empathy suggests recognizing the messenger’s feelings and acknowledging them without necessarily agreeing with these feelings or even relating to them. “I can see how upset you are with the project delay and cost … ” is responding with empathy, not sympathy.
- Talk Less/Listen More — You can’t listen effectively if you’re talking to yourself. You can’t listen effectively if you talking to the other person too much, either. You enhance the interaction and get to the outcome faster and better when you talk less and listen more to the words, tone and visual cues. Then it will be he easier for you to conclude the conversation successfully, solve the problem or deal with the situation. When you’re talking – you aren’t listening. Silence is golden.
- Tell Less/Ask More — Ask lots of good questions that draw out important facts and feelings. Use open ended questions – “What didn’t you like about the candidate?” and closed questions – “How many other people do you want to interview?” Ask probing questions to get beyond the venting of frustration or anger – “Give me another example of Joe’s unprofessional behavior” or “Why is that important to you?” If you’re telling too much and not asking enough, you make it difficult to listen effectively.
- Follow up in Writing — To minimize miscommunication or misunderstanding, quickly follow up on the conversation with a brief written summary. Include key facts, issues, solutions or outcomes. If the other person doesn’t remember the conversation the same way you do, the written summary will uncover that discrepancy quickly. The extra time you take to send a written summary is always worth the effort and makes the communication process easier.
“So what you’re suggesting is that you’re very enthusiastic about these 10 listening best practices. You realize they are simple and worth embracing, but they’re not easy. Did I get that correct?”
Yes, I did.
Make the commitment to integrate these techniques into your natural interacting style. Focus on gradual but consistent improvement. You have the most to gain from improving your listening effectiveness and efficiency. And your increasing image as a Varsity Workplace Communicator will enhance your value and worth to your internal and external customers. So, make listening work for you. Do you hear what I’m saying?
Phil Stella runs Effective Training & Communication, where he empowers business leaders to communicate confidently. A popular trainer and executive coach on workplace communications and sales presentations, he is also on the Cleveland faculty of the University of Phoenix and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative.