Lis­ten up

It’s more than just hear­ing, it’s un­der­stand­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA BOWES

HAVE you ever been ac­cused of not lis­ten­ing? I sus­pect that most peo­ple have re­ceived that type of crit­i­cism, yet I’m not sure most peo­ple re­al­ize just how im­por­tant lis­ten­ing is to our daily life. Lis­ten­ing is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool; in fact, it can be con­sid­ered the foun­da­tion of all of our com­mu­ni­ca­tion. For in­stance, if you com­pare the el­e­ments of com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as read­ing, talk­ing, writ­ing and lis­ten­ing, you’ll find that lis­ten­ing takes up the great­est amount of your time — any­where from 40 to 50 per cent.

Why is lis­ten­ing such an im­por­tant skill? First, lis­ten­ing helps us to con­nect with peo­ple. Ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing, tak­ing in and ab­sorb­ing in­for­ma­tion from oth­ers, serves to help peo­ple respond to us in a pos­i­tive man­ner. Good lis­ten­ing that is both non-judg­men­tal and em­pa­thetic en­cour­ages and in­vites peo­ple to con­tinue their dis­cus­sion so that some ac­tion might arise.

How­ever, lis­ten­ing is not the same as hear­ing. Lis­ten­ing is a skill that de­mands an ac­tive ef­fort, while hear­ing is more of a “flow through” process. Just be­cause you hear some­thing doesn’t mean you un­der­stand it. Lis­ten­ing is a way to ac­knowl­edge oth­ers and show re­spect for them. It is also a means of re­duc­ing stress and can serve as the ba­sis for co-or­di­na­tion, ne­go­ti­a­tion and prob­lem solv­ing. Lis­ten­ing re­quires that you sus­pend what you are do­ing, give your full at­ten­tion to the speaker and sus­pend your own point of view while the in­di­vid­ual shares their in­for­ma­tion with you.

Lis­ten­ing is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for man­agers and su­per­vi­sors. Lead­ers who lis­ten to their em­ploy­ees of­ten learn about op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­duc­tiv­ity im­prove­ments. Ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing demon­strates a sense of con­cern for staff and it is these man­agers who more eas­ily gain the trust, re­spect and loy­alty of their staff. When ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing is part of the or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture, you will find high lev­els of pro­duc­tiv­ity and high lev­els of em­ployee morale.

Typ­i­cally, most of us en­gage in at least three lev­els of lis­ten­ing ev­ery day. When you are busy and en­gaged, you most of­ten lis­ten at the first level. In other words, you might be hear­ing some con­ver­sa­tion, but you are ac­tu­ally tun­ing out and not lis­ten­ing. Per­haps the con­ver­sa­tion doesn’t re­ally af­fect you and/or you have lit­tle in­ter­est in the topic. Some­times you might even fake at­ten­tion but in re­al­ity, you are think­ing about some­thing else and/or pre­par­ing your own re­sponse be­fore the per­son fin­ishes talk­ing.

At the sec­ond level, you might be lis­ten­ing to some ex­tent, but you are miss­ing the deeper mean­ing of what is be­ing said. In other words, you may be pay­ing at­ten­tion to the words, but you are miss­ing the emo­tion that is com­ing with it. You are miss­ing the feel­ings and this can lead to mis­un­der­stand­ing. In fact, much of the con­fu­sion that cre­ates con­flict be­tween peo­ple arises be­cause the speaker is led to be­lieve you un­der­stand their point of view while in re­al­ity, you have only lis­tened to the words. You have to­tally missed the feel­ings and emo­tions and there­fore you truly do not un­der­stand where the speaker was com­ing from.

The third level of lis­ten­ing is where you want to be in all of your com­mu­ni­ca­tions. This is known as em­pa­thetic lis­ten­ing, where you try to put your­self in the speaker’s

Lead­ers who lis­ten to their em­ploy­ees of­ten learn about op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­duc­tiv­ity im­prove­ments

po­si­tion to un­der­stand their point of view. It means that as a lis­tener, you ac­knowl­edge the in­di­vid­ual both ver­bally and non­ver­bally, you fo­cus un­di­vided at­ten­tion on this per­son and you sus­pend your own feel­ings or judg­ment un­til the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is con­cluded.

I am con­fi­dent most peo­ple want to be­come bet­ter lis­ten­ers, es­pe­cially those striv­ing for lead­er­ship and man­age­ment roles as well as those in the help­ing pro­fes­sions. But how should one go about im­prov­ing their lis­ten­ing skills. Some of the fol­low­ing ac­tiv­i­ties will go a long way to be­ing a bet­ter lis­tener.

Un­der­take a quick self-as­sess­ment — Take time to as­sess your own lis­ten­ing skills im­me­di­ately af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion. Ask your­self, did you tune the per­son out? Did you fo­cus all of your at­ten­tion or did your mind wan­der? Did you in­ter­rupt fre­quently? Did you guess what the per­son was go­ing to say be­fore they said it? Were you for­mu­lat­ing ad­vice and re­sponse be­fore the speaker was fin­ished? Did you lis­ten to the emo­tions that came with the words? If you en­gaged in any of these be­hav­iours, there is cer­tainly room for im­prove­ment.

What’s your fam­ily his­tory? — You may not re­al­ize it, but lis­ten­ing is a learned skill and one that be­gins early in your fam­ily his­tory. Some of the mes­sages you might have re­ceived in your fam­ily in­clude, “chil­dren should be seen and not heard.” All of these mes­sages af­fect how you lis­ten. For in­stance, it may cause re­sis­tance or it may have taught you to force your­self on oth­ers by con­tin­u­ally talk­ing with­out stop­ping to lis­ten to oth­ers. What is your fam­ily his­tory? Where is your self-es­teem? — Ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing re­quires that you feel good about your­self as well as oth­ers. Peo­ple who feel in­fe­rior of­ten lis­ten with vic­tim-like body lan­guage. They are afraid to ask ques­tions for clar­i­fi­ca­tion and as a re­sult, they of­ten mis­un­der­stand di­rec­tions or mis­in­ter­pret mes­sages. Still oth­ers who see them­selves as su­pe­rior are viewed by oth­ers as not lis­ten­ing to con­trary points of view. Those in­di­vid­u­als with good self-es­teem will be open and re­laxed in their com­mu­ni­ca­tion and will be viewed as good lis­ten­ers.

Rec­og­nize bar­ri­ers to lis­ten­ing — When you are pre­par­ing to lis­ten, take no­tice of the phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers that will af­fect good con­ver­sa­tion. Choose to sit at a ta­ble or be­side a per­son rather than sit­ting across a desk be­cause the desk might sug­gest a su­pe­rior power re­la­tion­ship which isn’t truly there. Be aware of and pay at­ten­tion to red flag words that might trig­ger an un­wel­come per­sonal emo­tion that will in­ter­fere with the lis­ten­ing of ei­ther party.

Pay at­ten­tion to body lan­guage and tone — Ef­fec­tive lis­ten­ing also means pay­ing at­ten­tion to those lit­tle body move­ments in­clud­ing tone of voice or the per­sonal nu­ances that can give off un­wanted sub­tle mes­sages. Avoid fa­cial ex­pres­sions such as rolling your eyes, play­ing with your hair, cre­at­ing ex­ter­nal noises and/or play­ing loudly with your pen.

Lis­ten­ing is one of the most im­por­tant skills that you can de­velop to be a bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tor. How­ever, lis­ten­ing skills are built on habits that you’ve grown up with and re­quire a con­cen­trated ef­fort to im­prove. Fail­ing to do so can not only have a se­ri­ous im­pact on your abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively, but poor lis­ten­ing skills can stymie your en­tire ca­reer.

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