Effective Listening Helps the Bad Become Good and the Good Become Better
Are You Great at Listening?
So let’s start by making the concession that you likely believe you are a good or excellent listener.
It is probably a good idea to confirm that. Just to make sure. Answer this quick quiz to see how you rate. Answer each question with either Always, Sometimes, Rarely, or Never.
Be tough on yourself here with your ratings. If people have to ask you to pay attention to them, for example, then you would probably rate yourself low on #2 despite your strong feelings that you do pay attention.
- I allow a speaker to finish without interrupting
- I focus only on the speaker and avoid distractions
- I don’t get upset or agitated when when I disagree with the speaker
- I try to be interested in what the speaker is saying
- I work at retaining important facts from the speaker
- I repeat the details to make sure I understand them
Now, give yourself four points for each Always, three points for each Sometimes, two for each Rarely, and one for each Never.
If you score below 18 points, then you likely are not as good a listener as you believe you are.
If you discovered you are not as good as you thought, you are in good company. As I mentioned earlier, most people feel they are good to excellent listeners but the studies show that actually almost all of us are poor listeners. It gets worse as we get older and has nothing to do with our physical abilities. It has to do with our environment.
We Are Not Naturally Good Listeners
I freely admit that I am not naturally a good listener. Attribute that to whatever you want. That I like to talk and be heard. That I am often opinionated. Because I make assumptions and pursue them. Or simply that I think I know more than the speaker.
The biggest barriers to effective listening (particularly in the business community) are environmental distractions such cell phone, email, other demands for attention and preparing a reply to the speaker’s message. The second one is huge. Most of us feel we must reply immediately to whatever someone says. In fact, the late Stephen Covey once said
“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
Listening IS Learnable
Knowing that I am not naturally a good listener, I also know I need to intentionally work at listening more carefully and become better at it.
Perhaps that is the good news in all this. Whether you rated as a good or poor listener, it is simple (but not easy) to become a better listener than you are now.
Critical Leadership Skill
As a leader, this is a critical skill. James E. Lillie, former CEO of Jarden Corporation, says it is THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL a leader must have. So does current CEO Dave Abney of UPS. And former Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer.
What’s the value of listening for a leader?
- Listening shows you care
- It allows you to become engaged with your employees
- It develops your empathy
- It fosters understanding
- You can develop your emotional intelligence
- Listening builds trust
You can read more about the value of listening for leaders here.
So the excellent listener can become the excellent leader. It therefore pays to be intentional about our listening skills.
Six Quick Tips for Listening Better
That’s all well and good, but how do you go about becoming a better listener? Start by focusing on some basic techniques. Again, they are simple but not necessarily easy.
1. Keep Your Focus on the Speaker
Look at them. Make eye contact. It not only gets you to keep your attention on them but also allows you to pick up the non-verbal cues that add context and meaning to their words. A 1981 study showed that only 7% of our understanding comes from words. The rest comes from how we say it and the perception that comes from our interpretation of non-verbal behavior.
2. Avoid Distractions
Put your phone down or in your pocket. Turn away from the computer keyboard. Stop whatever else you were doing. People want to believe they can multi-task – that they can listen and do some work or check email at the same time – but the research actually tells us that we are ALL lousy multi-taskers. We aren’t designed for it. Pay attention to the person who is speaking.
3. Don’t Be a Distraction Yourself
For one, don’t interrupt. It shows a lack of respect for the speaker and what they have to say. Usually we interrupt because we are so anxious to insert our thoughts or opinions. As a result, we never fully understand the speaker’s intent.
Along the same lines, don’t change the subject. Hijacking their message to pursue something else again insinuates that their message – and by extension they – doesn’t matter.
4. Encourage the Speaker
Using small acknowledgements like “uh-huh!“, “I see.“, “go on“, “tell me more” and other similar interjections affirms to the speaker that we are listening and encouraging them to continue. If you are going to hear the message, why not hear all of it?
5. Manage Your Emotions
When we allow ourselves to react to words or thoughts, especially when they are counter to our own opinions, we significantly diminish our ability to understand. It’s kind of like a faucet handle. As we react emotionally, we turn that faucet handle and the flow of water becomes less and less until it is just a trickle. Then eventually not at all. Emotional content is necessary and so we need to be careful that it doesn’t overtake us.
If you want to see evidence of this, look at discussions of current events on social media like Facebook. Most participants react emotionally instead of responding thoughtfully. As a result, no one understands, no new thoughts are shared, and tensions run high. Friendships and connections are lost.
6. Confirm Understanding
Create a comprehension sandwich. When the speaker finishes, pause. Your first words after that should be “What I understand you to say is…” followed by a paraphrase of their message. Then finish by asking “Is that correct?” The lead-in helps set the stage that you are seeking understanding and not providing a counterpoint. The paraphrase helps to put it into your own words to internalize the message. The finish allows the speaker to confirm your understanding or improve your understanding.
For big bonus points, your next response after understanding is achieved is not to make a statement but to ask a question. It allows the speaker to further share their thoughts and your learn and understand even more.
Listening as Leaders
As a leader, we need information and input. We won’t get it when we are talking but get all we need when we are listening.