The Forgotten Art of Listening
By Galia BarHava-Monteith
Throughout my working career I’ve constantly found myself re-discovering the importance of listening and I’ve also noticed how very few people do it well.
A Rare Skill
Being listened to means a lot to people. Colleagues want to talk about issues beyond the immediate work issues, topics ranging from their careers to handling difficult situations at work, and often in the workplace we are not listened to.
Instead, whenever we need to talk something through, our colleagues or managers feel inclined to solve the problem for us rather than listening and guiding us to solve our problem for ourselves.
Not only is it good to be able to listen well – listening can also be great for your career.
- You build relationships. Everyone likes to be listened to. It’s a powerful way to show respect. When people feel you respect them, they are more likely to see you as an ally.
- You will learn about your company/business. If you ask the right questions & listen, you’ll be surprised what you learn.
- You will become known as constructive problem solver. When being listened to, and asked the right questions, people often find the answer for themselves. This way, your colleagues will be more likely to ‘own’ their solution and be more likely to act on it.
- You will set an example. This never hurts!
All of these things will result in you being seen as trustworthy and will increase your ‘sphere of informal influence’ – the influence you have which is not related to your actual position.
Hearing versus Listening
‘Hearing’ describes the physiological sensory processes by which auditory sensations are received by the ears and transmitted to the brain. ‘Listening’, on the other hand, refers to a more complex psychological procedure involving interpreting and understanding the significance of the sensory experience.
Hearing is the beginning of the listening process. It is non-selective and involuntary. Listening is a purposeful activity.
This means that you can hear what another person is saying, and even repeat it word for word without really listening to them. Listening is the ability to interpret the meaning the other person is trying to convey, sometimes regardless of (and occasionally even contrary to) the words used. Listening involves more than just interpreting the meaning of words; it involves interpreting the tone, the body language and, often, interpreting what is not being said.
What Makes a Good Workplace Listener?
My definition of a good workplace listener is someone with whom you can have a rigorous exchange of ideas. A good workplace listener is aware of your organisational reality. What distinguishes a great workplace listener from the rest of us is that they have the ability to encourage us to think through complex work related issues and thus help us come up with workable solutions.
The Art of Attending
To be a good workplace listener, you actually need to be someone who people want to talk to. We all know people who think they are great listeners but in reality are very poor at it. One of the most basic things you can do is work on your ability to attend to what is being said. This way you can make people feel they can truly talk to you and you will listen.
More than half of most communication is non verbal, through our gestures, facial expressions, eyes and posture. Non verbal communication may emphasise, repeat, substitute for, regulate or contradict accompanying verbal communication.
In one experiment on the importance of non-verbal communications, it was found that students who were listened to by an impassive listener rated him as cold and aloof. However, when the same ‘listener’ moved and made some non-verbal gestures in response to the speaker, the same listener was described as warm, casual, friendly and natural.
Some of the Basics of Attentive Listening
- Make sure you are in the right psychological space to listen. There is nothing wrong with telling your colleagues who may want to talk to you that you are not in the right space at that particular moment. People respect honesty. However, if you want them to come back and talk with you, then schedule a time when you can have a good conversation.
- When you are in the psychological space to listen, make sure you communicate this physically. Work on a posture of involvement. Lean forward; be relaxed and alert.
- Respond to the speaker, not to distractions. Looking at your computer, taking phone calls, or looking at the person walking past your office is not only rude, it also interferes with listening.
- Keep environmental distractions to a minimum. The attentive listener will remove physical barriers to foster better communications and observe body language. This is an important part of listening, which can’t be done well when there’s a big desk in the way.
- Maintaining eye contact, even when people show emotion, is one of the most effective listening skills in many societies. Maintaining appropriate and culturally sensitive eye contact and being aware of emotionally charged environments shows that you are interested and helps you notice what is not said.
- Use ‘minimal encouragers’ (such as ok, yes, uh-ha, right, really) to let the speaker know that you are interested (or at least still awake), and maintain the flow of what they have to say
- Summarising what was said. If you find using ‘minimal encouragers’ a bit contrived, this one is a great way to show you are listening and interested. It is also a great way to check that you understand the issues at hand. Often, just by summarising what was said, people often quickly recognise the issue at hand and find the solution for themselves!
The Art of Questioning
This is really the core skill of a good workplace listener. These people know exactly what the right question is, the question that will get to the heart of any problem. When asked the right questions, many of us find that the answers to our issues are painfully obvious.
So how do you go about asking the right questions?
A great way to find good questions is by thinking of yourself as an interviewer who is about to write a story. This way, you really need to focus on the questions that will help you get the ‘juicy bits’:
- Use as many open questions as you can think of to find out the facts – Where? When? Why? And How? One thing I learnt the hard way is that no matter how good I thought I was in getting the facts, I often neglected to ask at least one important question.
- Find out who is involved or affected by the issue – remember to look beyond the obvious stakeholders such as managers and staff to see others, like shareholders and customers. This can bring out a very different picture.
- What have they already thought of in terms of resolving the issue? Can you help them think of other ways? What are the consequences of these alternatives and how might they affect the various stakeholders?
- Tolerate silence in the conversation; give yourself time to reflect on what you’ve heard (i.e. listen) – “the beginning of wisdom is silence – the second stage is listening”.
- Paraphrase (concisely; not parrot) – to ensure you understand.
- Don’t offer solutions too quickly – this is the BIG challenge of listening; help people solve their own problems. This way, they are most likely to own the solutions.
How Good a Listener Are You?
A little self reflection can go a long way. A very quick exercise you can do for yourself is to think of a great listener you know and write down what they do. Then think of a poor listener and write down what makes them so ineffective.
With your list of what distinguishes great listeners from poor ones, you can rate yourself and see which qualities you already have, and which you still lack. If you choose to do something about it, you can always focus on improving on a key area (for example, avoiding giving solutions…). Come up with one or two strategies and improve that aspect of your listening. After a while, ask a close colleague to give you feedback. Simple, but it works!
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