As communicators, you would think good listening skills come naturally to us, just like breathing or swallowing. But just because we were born with two ears doesn’t mean we listen well to others.
Research shows that people spend 53 percent of their daily communications activities on listening compared to 17 percent for reading, 16 percent for speaking and 14 percent for writing. Yet the average listener retains only half of the information they heard immediately after hearing it, and only one-fourth of the information after 48 hours. We must all learn to listen, not out of a need to memorize, but to comprehend. That takes practice and patience.
Most people assume that good listening involves three things:
* Not talking while the other person is speaking
* Using facial expressions and verbal sounds (Hmmm-hmmm) to let others know you’re listening
* Repeating back what you’ve just heard from the speaker
This three-pronged approach called active listening has been taught for decades. But good listening is more than this, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in Harvard Business Review.
We’re not sponges soaking up every concept, Zenger and Folkman say. Rather good listening works like a trampoline where there’s a bounce back effect. Speakers and listeners bounce ideas off one another to amplify, energize and clarify thinking.
Zenger and Folkman say great listeners do the following:
* Ask questions to gain better insight. Sitting in silence with an occasional nod of the head does nothing to confirm to the speaker that you understand what was said. Asking questions signals to the speaker that you desire to learn more.
* Make the speaker feel supported. Great listeners make interactions a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen if a listener is passive, or worse, critical. This supportive environment is characterized by creating a safe environment in which issues and differences of opinion can be discussed openly and freely.
* Create a cooperative environment for conversation. Feedback flows freely in all directions. Neither party gets defensive about comments. By comparison, poor listeners are perceived as competitive; they listen only to identify errors in judgment, reasoning or logic.
* Make suggestions and provide feedback. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but they do so with the intent to help the other party, not hurt them or win an argument.
So how do good communicators develop better listening skills? Here are a few tips from Fast Company.
1. Be present. You can be sitting in the first row staring up at the speaker, but your mind can be a million miles away writing your marketing plan in your head. Though your body is in place, your attention is not. Learn to be present in the moment. Give the speaker your undivided attention, no matter how boring their presentation may be. Avoid distractions – put away the phone, put down your pen, shut off the laptop. If you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the present.
If that doesn’t work, imagine if the roles were reversed. If you were speaking, wouldn’t you want people to give their undivided attention to you? Of course, you would. With that in mind, be fully present wherever you are.
2. Listen to learn. Be curious. Communicators by nature are curious people, so this should not be an issue. Nevertheless, listen to gain better understanding. Don’t just listen out of politeness or because you’re supposed to. Listening out of politeness doesn’t help you gain a better understanding of the other party’s meaning.
3. Set aside your personal agenda. We each have our reasons for participating in the conversation or want to achieve something from it. Maybe it’s to ask for their help on a project or persuade a different outcome on a decision. Whatever it is, that’s your own personal agenda. “When you think of your own agenda, you shut off the opportunity to truly listen and learn something from the other person,” says Hal Gregerson of MIT Leadership Center, interviewed for the Fast Company story. “It’s important to be open to new information that you’re not looking for but need to hear.”
4. Ask questions. Listening well and asking questions shows a willingness on your part to being proven wrong, whether it’s misinformation or an assumption about something. Asking questions shows your interest in the speaker and what they have to say. It also creates a safe space to have an open discussion. Asking questions helps you learn more from the speaker and shows you are engaged in the conversation.
5. Wait to respond. Like waiting for a stoplight to change from red to green, great listeners need to sense when it’s a good time to respond and when they need to hold their tongue. One of the most difficult aspects of listening effectively is waiting for that natural pause at the end of the sentence where listeners can ask questions or offer a rebuttal. Patience is key, and poor listeners aren’t very patient. When you begin to form a reply before the speaker has finished speaking, you communicate to others that your opinion is more important than theirs. Great listeners suspend their judgment and wait for the right moment to engage in conversation.
6. Repeat back what you heard. Not sure if what you heard was accurate? Need clarification? Repeat the speaker’s words. For example, “Let me get this straight. You believe all education should be free to students? Why?” Repeating back is a technique that’s been around for decades. Management experts says it’s a proven technique that defuses arguments because it slows down the pace of conversation. Repeating back encourages further discussion and gives speakers and listeners a chance to clarify and gain better understanding.
Great listeners are not born. But with proper training, practice and patience, good communicators can become great listeners.