Most people will admit that they need to listen more. There are many areas of our professional lives that we feel we could or should improve, but listening is a skill area that regularly crops up in people’s self-diagnostics.
Unlike other bad habits which we may be completely unaware of until someone else points them out, not listening properly is something that we all know to be wrong yet most of us will plead guilty to having done at some point.
We all know we need to listen properly and we’ve all heard the old adage about having two ears and only one mouth; the trick is ensuring that we do use those ears. This begins before the conversation even starts. Important conversations can crop up spontaneously, but if you are arranging to meet someone who you know has something important to discuss with you, make sure you are in the right frame of mind.
If you know, for example, that another meeting later that day will be on your mind, show your client some respect and schedule a time to see them when you can (to the very best of your knowledge) give them your undivided attention.
That attention needs to continue once you actually meet. It might seem patronising to remind you that phones, tablets and laptops can be distracting but they frequently seem to creep into meetings – not only acting as a temptation to you, but allowing other parties not even present to distract you with incoming messages.
Once you’ve put away the gadgets you need to remember to put away your tongue. Interviews and assessment centres have built habits in all of us that make us want to have our say. We feel we need to be seen to be contributing. However, if you’re trying to listen, you need to rein in any desire to speak before your client’s had their say.
Great care is taken with a sterile scientific experiment to prevent any alien contaminants from influencing the outcome. Similarly, anything you choose to add to an individual’s train of thought or stream of conscience serves to influence its path. If you need to demonstrate agreement, show empathy or encourage someone to continue, there are a host of non-verbal gestures available to you.
The one occasion on which you should interrupt someone you’re trying to listen to is if you need something clarifying or explaining. Even if you think nothing is unclear enough to warrant an interruption, once the speaker has finished you should confirm that you fully understand what has just been said. Briefly recapping the key points and issues in your own words is a great way to do this. It ensures that you are both singing off the same song sheet and demonstrates that you have done what you set out to do – you have listened.
Hearing is a natural ability. Properly listening is a skill. Listening, like any other skill can be actively employed, worked on, and improved. You need to choose to listen to someone. You need to ensure you devote headspace to the person in question, give them a platform, remove external distractions, and confirm understanding. Genuine listening connects you to the speaker, connections lead to trusting relationships and it’s in these relationships that you find value.