Weather on the Ones, 24-hour cable news, talk radio, youtube, cell phones, the robotic thumbing of Blackberries – all around us is the relentless babble of words. While all this connectivity has certainly increased our output, it has also numbed our senses and shrunken our attention spans. In the process, it has robbed us of something vital. Sure, we may be communicating more than ever before – but is anybody really listening? My experience as an executive recruiter tells me that one of the most basic skills essential for success in the workplace is effective listening. Sadly, it’s also one of the least practiced. Nothing hurts more than the feeling of “not being heard.” This is why sustained, sympathetic and fully-engaged listening can be such a powerful transformational tool in business – and why the lack of it hurts us immeasurably.
Ideally, communication with our clients should be a two-way street. Jumping in before we’ve even had a chance to hear what the other has said is like hanging up the phone before speaking. It’s a one-way conversation. In order to be a good listener, we must first obviate the more pressing need to always speak. In this way, we can often stimulate a more meaningful dialogue and generate better ideas. With a little practice, awareness, and some applied listening, we can all learn to communicate more effectively. But the ways in which we don’t listen are as many as the distractions that surround us. Here’s a look at some of the more common offenders.
A variation of the oft-parodied American abroad who in response to a non- comprehending native just ups the volume – this verbal steamroller tries to dominate any conversation by means of the classic “my-voice-is-louder-than-yours” routine. Shouting over another person while he or she is talking, while not only rude, will inevitably lead to follow-up questions, missed cues and more frustration. “Sorry, what was that?” “Pardon me, were you trying to say something?”
Try this: Put down the bullhorn. Take a deep breath, and wait for the other to finish. Then, having gathered your thoughts, quietly and confidently, begin to speak your piece.
The Crackberry Addict
I see this one all the time: two clients at lunch who appear to be listening to each other, each engaged in completely separate conversations on their Blackberries! And we’ve all seen these addicts in meetings: shoulders hunched, eyes glazed over, hands furiously thumbing under the table. Yes, we see you! While business transactions are important to tend to, there is also a time and a place for checking email. As a mark of respect for the speaker, put away all Blackberries and cellphones during a meeting. If it can’t wait, simply excuse yourself for a few minutes.
Try this: If you feel you are losing someone’s attention to a Blackberry, one way to bring them back is to politely ask him or her to repeat your last comment. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
The Switchboard Operator
Listening on the telephone requires an even greater amount of stamina, concentration and patience. There are no visual cues, no body language to guide the dialogue. Ringing phones, repeated interruptions or juggling calls shows distraction and can easily crush the seedlings of a meaningful discussion. Not only that, but it can often lead to organizational snafus, crossed messages and poor recall.
Try this: If you’re on a landline, turn off your cellphone. Let all other calls go to voicemail. But give your caller the gift of undivided attention.
The Keyboard Clacker
A close cousin of the Switchboard Operator, the Keyboard Clacker keeps on typing while you keep talking. To say that it is disconcerting is putting it mildly. Sure, we all have to multi-task, but the message on the receiving end is: “What you are saying is not as important as what I am doing.”
Try this: Let your hands be still for a moment. Or if they won’t, at least let them be quiet. Detailed, technical or complicated ideas are not shared when the speaker feels tuned out.
The Human Periscope
Pay attention here! Ogling the daily specials menu, the waitress, the TV in the corner, is not a good idea in mixed company. Or in any company. We are all guilty: scanning the room, the crowd entering the bar, the woman’s shoes at the next table. Showing interest in anything other than the topic on hand shows a marked lack of respect, and a lack of discipline. On the other hand, maintaining good eye contact says you are engaged. Present.
Try this: Focus instead on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone and posture. Subtle body language can often convey much more meaning than mere words.
The “Yes” Man
“Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh…” or “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you…” But do you really? The real art of listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak. By “yes-ing” someone to death, the direct message we send out is: “Hurry up and finish so I can begin!” Rushing the speaker along, or jumping in ahead of time, says you’ve heard enough. Giving the speaker room to finish a sentence or thought without interruption is vital.
Try this: The next time you are tempted to jump in, try to pause. Make a mental or written note to yourself to come back to this point later. Then go on listening.
A competitive form of one-upmanship, this kind of verbal Judo does little to facilitate an equitable or open exchange of ideas. Favorite expressions of The Topper include: “That’s nothing, one time I…” or “Hey, that reminds me of…” Trying to “top” another’s conversation sends out the clear signal that you’re more interested in speaking than listening.
Try this: Don’t compete. Let the speaker have their moment in the spotlight before you have yours. It’s a conversation, not a competition.
Granted, true listening is not always easy in a competitive world – we have so many other demands for our time and attention. It requires that we temporarily set aside our own needs, wants, fears, worries, prejudices, and actively shift our attention onto the speaker. In getting a clinical history from a patient, doctors are often encouraged to ask their client: “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” It’s an open-ended question designed to unearth any underlying concerns that the patient may have. And it’s highly effective. It says to the patient: “I am listening. Did I miss anything here?”
In medicine, as in business, clear and effective communication must always be the goal. Ultimately, good listening is itself an act of generosity. But as we know, it is in giving that we receive. For those willing to do the work of listening – the benefits will always outweigh the costs.]]>