Listening accounts for well over half of a manager’s communication time, and it is unquestionably the weakest link in the communication chain. We simply don’t listen well enough. The failure is not in the hearing, but in our ability to attend to what we hear. Listening is hard work. It’s so easy to ‘switch off’. If only we listened attentively and with empathy, we would eliminate so many misunderstandings, arguments, delays, and mistakes. Become a better listener by adhering to the following advice…
1. Commit yourself to each individual act of listening.
Whenever you need to hear everything someone is saying, commit yourself – really commit yourself – to do so. Say to yourself, ‘The most important thing in my life at this moment is to understand this person’s feelings and views.’ Accordingly, focus all of your listening capacity on the speaker for the next five, fifteen, or fifty minutes. Actually want to listen better. It’s a small investment of your time that can pay enormous dividends.
2. Really concentrate on what is being said.
When listening, listen. Listening is not a passive activity. Unless you’re concentrating solely on what is being said, you’re not listening. If you’ve heard it all before, hear it again. Fight the ‘switch-off’ syndrome. The more you work at concentrating while listening, the more your powers of concentration will develop and the easier listening will become.
3. Neutralise your biases.
Don’t let your personal biases turn you off, despite what you may feel about the speaker’s voice, character, appearance, or reputation, or the subject being discussed. Don’t let your feelings distort the real message. Stay calm; don’t get upset; and keep an open mind.
4. Encourage the speaker.
Show the speaker you’re listening by nodding, facing him or her, maintaining eye contact, leaning forward slightly, smiling, and repeating (silently) key words or points. Don’t interrupt with a response until the speaker has finished. Remember, as Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel once observed: The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.
5. Ignore all distractions.
Particularly if the speaker or the topic is dull, or once we get a rough idea of what is being said, we readily allow distractions to interfere with our listening – noises, ringing telephones, our own thoughts, the speaker’s mannerisms, daydreaming, passing employees, a memo you’re working on – Giving in to distractions is a bad habit that could have you not hearing something worthwhile or vital.
6. Focus on the main ideas.
Good listening involves separating the verbal grain from the chaff. Learn to identify the major points to which the facts point: good listeners are concept listeners rather than fact listeners. Finally, search for the implications of what is being said.
7. Test your understanding.
Ensure that you really understand what the speaker is saying. Ask for repetition, clarification, amplification, and examples. Summarise from time to time. By doing so, you will also indicate to the speaker that you are really listening.
8. Delay formulating your arguments.
Since brain speed works at about 90 times the rate of the speed of speech, we sometimes allow our minds to soar ahead of what we’re hearing, and working on our response. While doing this, we don’t hear what is being said. So try not to let your attention wander too soon to formulate a reply.
9. Suspend judgement.
Listening is a separate task from interpreting and evaluating, both of which can hamper the listening process. Make sure you comprehend before you judge the message, so resist the temptation to debate the message mentally and prematurely instead of listening. Your time would be better spent checking and rechecking the information by questioning. Delay the processing until later.
10. Don’t talk too much.
You can’t talk and listen at the same time. If you want information, you shouldn’t say much – you already know what you think. You should be more interested in what the other person has to say. So let him or her dominate the discussion, so that you can stay focused – listening.
11. Remember: listening is a key to personal success.
Recognise that listening is something you do if you want to succeed. But you should not only listen: you need to strike a balance – or as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said: ‘It is the privilege of wisdom to listen and the province of knowledge to speak.’
Listening earns you power and respect, and gets you the information you need to be an effective manager. But listening is a sophisticated skill. It requires self-discipline, and you’ll need to work on it.