When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t unusual for my report card to come home with a note from the teacher at the bottom that read something like, “Danny is well-behaved, but he must learn not to talk so much in class.” I somehow escaped the “Danny” moniker by middle school, but that’s a story for another day. I remember, on more than one occasion, a teacher making me write “I will not talk in class” a hundred times for being disruptive in class. Obviously, I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut.
There were two issues with my incessant talking in class. First, my talking was disruptive to the class, preventing my classmates from learning. Second, when my mouth was running, there was no way I could have been listening to the teacher. You can’t actively listen when you’re talking. It just doesn’t work.
It’s this second issue I want to address today. Too often managers do all the talking and none of the listening. I recently wrote on this subject and used the old quote, “You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.”
Here’s the issue for most of us: Good communication skills require a high level of self-awareness, and not all of us have it. You must understand your communication style in order to make improvements to it. Being a strong communicator—especially a good listener—goes a long way toward creating strong, positive relationships.
But listening doesn’t just happen. There’s a distinction between hearing and listening. Listening takes work. You must make a conscious decision to listen to and understand what the speaker is saying.
Forget about work for a second. Have you ever had your spouse, a child, a significant other, or a family member ask, “Did you hear what I said?” My wife would tell you that she asks me that question on a regular basis. Typically, I heard her talking, but I wasn’t listening to what she was saying. The difference between hearing and listening!
I know there have been times when my wife has wondered whether I was listening to what she was saying. That’s not a good situation at home, nor is it good when the people you work with are wondering the same thing. They are speaking, sharing something that is important, trying to convey ideas and opinions, and they start to doubt whether you’re listening to a word they say. It’s demoralizing for the speaker.
It takes effort to be a good listener. You need to focus on the speaker and what she is saying. To be a better listener and understand the messages others are communicating to you, you must be an active listener.
So how do you practice active listening?
- Focus fully on the speaker. In a day where we are bombarded with messages and distractions, you must put everything aside to really listen. Have you ever read messages on your phone while a colleague is speaking in a meeting? Have you ever answered e-mail while on a conference call? Most of us have. If so, you’re not being an active listener. In fact, you’re being rude and disrespectful to the speaker. We all think we can multitask, but we can’t. Research shows we remember less than half of what we hear. Imagine what the percentage would be if the words were spoken while we were doing something other than just listening.
- Provide nonverbal cues to demonstrate you’re engaged. If you maintain eye contact with the speaker, nod your head in agreement occasionally, and give other nonverbal responses to a speaker, it will show that you are actively listening to what is being said. A smile or laugh when something funny is said will show that you’re engaged in the conversation. The more you can show that you are truly hearing what is being said, the more comfortable and communicative the speaker will become.
- Respond in ways that keep the speaker going. Providing verbal feedback that helps the speaker feel at ease allows her to get everything out. Active listening means asking open-ended questions that elicit more information. It also means giving verbal cues that show you’re still listening and that the speaker can continue with the knowledge that she is being heard.
We need to practice active listening to really hear what people are saying, not what YOU want to hear. There’s a big difference. If we think we have all the answers, if we think our own ideas and opinions are more important than those of others, we won’t listen to what others are saying. If you want to build rapport and trust with the people you work with, you must listen to what they’re saying. No one wants what they’re saying to fall on deaf ears. Listen to those around you; you’ll be amazed at what you learn.