Whether you are a corporate executive trying to manage hundreds of employees, a marketing or sales rep trying to land a new client, or even an entry level gofer just struggling to appease a demanding boss, it is almost impossible to succeed without developing effective communication skills. In fact, effective communication skills are fundamental to almost every successful business interaction- a fact acknowledged by the plethora of courses and seminars offered teaching people how to persuasively convey their ideas and get what they want.
However, all too often we forget that communication is a two way street, and that in order to effectively communicate we must learn not only to be a good speaker, but also to be a good listener. how to speak well, but also how to listen well. how to listen communicate thei is widely acknowledged that solid communication skills are fundamental to almost every successful business interaction, but too often we forget that communication skills encompass not only our ability to effectively convey our ideas, but also our ability to truly listen to what others are saying. In order to be an effective leader, or have successful business or even personal interactions, it is crucial to not just hear what people are saying, but to truly listen with the intent to learn from the experience.
What is your listening aptitude? Test yourself by answering the following true/false statements.
T/F I regularly need to ask people to repeat what they have said. I do not catch all of it the first time.
T/F The people closest to me often joke about having to “hit me with a brick” in order for me to pick up on something.
T/F Having “misunderstandings” and “miscommunications” with others is part of my everyday work.
T/F The people closest to me joke with comments like, “you never listen to me” or “in one ear and out the other”.
T/F I can be easily distracted by my surroundings when talking with someone.
T/F Finishing people’s sentences or interrupting in order to keep the conversation moving is the way I do business.
T/F I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t really have to listen. I already know what they want/need from me.
T/F Subtleties usually escape me.
T/F I find myself reading email or checking my blackberry when a conversation starts to drag.
T/F I don’t always have to listen. I already know what the person is saying and I am just formulating my response.
How many statements were answered “True”? How many “False”? This self-test should be thought of like a quick snap-shot to help you identify whether you are an ace at listening, could use a little brushing up, or perhaps it is an area that you recognize could be improved upon. More “True” statements indicate a lower aptitude for listening, whereas, more “False” statements indicate a greater aptitude for listening.
I was at a dinner party not too long ago where one of the guests was describing their experience in having met President Clinton. He described Clinton as being totally focused on meeting him. He left you feeling as if you and he were the only two in the room (filled with hundreds of people). This was the second person I had met who described the President in this way. He is such a skilled listener that it leaves a strong and positive impression on people (regardless of their political views).
Being a skilled listener may seem natural to a few, but for many of us it is like trying to write with “the wrong hand”. You conceptually know how to write, but the action of actually writing with “the wrong hand” is forced and awkward. If you really concentrate you can probably carve out letters that resemble your first grade handwriting. You can do it, but it is not nearly as effortless as writing with your writing hand. Just like you practiced handwriting and it became a natural, even effortless, skill; you can practice listening until it becomes natural and effortless.
The following five exercises are the tools that, over the years, have proved most useful in helping my clients increase their listening aptitude. These are not in any order of importance and some clients may use one or two and others use all five at one time or another. What was your listening aptitude? Which tools will help you most?
1. Decrease distractions – Work on limiting the amount of potential distractions when you are having a conversation with someone. Examples include: stopping whatever it is that you are working on, putting your phone on silent, closing your email, having your back turned to not catch the eye of everyone walking by, turning off your monitor, turning up the window shade, turning down the radio. If you are at home it may include turning down or turning off the television. Perhaps you are expecting a call and someone walks into your office to talk. You might ask if you could schedule a time with them so you’re not distracted by the incoming phone call.
2. Summarize – Get into the habit of summarizing what was just said. If you were listening well, your summary may be met with an “exactly”. A summary may begin with the following phrases: “What I’m hearing you say is….” or “Let me make sure I’ve got this…” Summarizing is a great way to get clarity on something, make sure everyone is on the same page, and avoid problems due to miscommunication.
3. Practice – As you are going through your day, listen to what is around you. Listen for sounds you don’t normally bother paying attention to like the birds in a bush nearby, the clicking sound made by a cash register at the store, or noises coming from the cars around you on the street.
4. Take notes – Putting to paper the key words or phrases from your conversation may support your listening process. For people who learn more easily by being actively engaged (kinesthetic) and people who learn by seeing (visual) can benefit from having a paper and pen in hand when they enter into a conversation. Depending on your level of acquaintance with the person you may want to ask permission to take notes. A rule of thumb with note taking is to write just enough to remember the conversation and not so much that it becomes a distraction.
5. Focus – Pay attention to the person with whom you are speaking. It will become distracting to the person if they can see that your attention is being diverted elsewhere. What they say non-verbally should be as telling as what they say verbally. Focus on their posture and their facial expressions. Pay attention to the volume, tone and speed at which a person talks. Listen for the pauses and the silence. Make eye contact with the person. As a rule of thumb, there should be enough eye contact to show you are interested in the person and the conversation and not so much that it becomes awkward or uncomfortable.
These five exercises can support you in strengthening your listening skill. Practice your listening skills like you once practiced penmanship and master the art of listening. It will be well worth the effort; becoming a truly good listener will impact every interaction you have with other people, benefiting both your professional and personal life.