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Listening: A Lost Art or a Learnable Communication Skill?

As a communication consultant I am often asked, “What is the most important communication skill that managers and leaders bring to the table?” Hands down the skill is listening. That does not negate the importance of other verbal and non-verbal communication skills, but research shows that as individuals rise in the organization, so does the amount of time they spend listening.

Listening is an Underdeveloped Communication Skill

Many of us don’t consider listening as a separate communication skill, but the following chart demonstrates that that over 70 percent of a mid-level manager’s time is spent on verbal communication and listening comprises over half of that. So organizations could benefit greatly from understanding what listening is, the financial impact of poor listening, and some methods to build listening skills.

What is listening? People tend to assume that listening and hearing is virtually the same thing, when in fact they are two distinct functions. Hearing is something we do instinctively. It is a physiological process. Listening, on the other hand, is a more complex process and involves focus, discipline, and self-awareness. Unlike hearing, listening is an active process and can be learned.

When individuals listen they intentionally take in information while remaining non-judgmental, they acknowledge the other party, and they attempt to move a discussion forward. This requires both parties taking responsibility for the interaction. Without these behaviors the result is often confusion, misunderstanding, conflict, negative emotions, frustration, etc., all of which affect personal and professional relationships.

What is the cost of poor listening? From a financial standpoint, think about how much of your day is spent listening and then determine what portion of your salary is tied to that skill. Readjust that number to take into consideration that only about 25 percent of your listening is actually effective. Then consider how much money the organization potentially wastes when this formula is applied to other stakeholders in the organization. The result is that poor listening negatively impacts a company’s bottom line more that any other single communication skill. In addition, the less measurable outcomes affect professional development. This suggests that perhaps companies should direct more attention to listening.

What are some methods for building effective listening skills? Interestingly, while this channel is most often used for learning, it is the least understood of the communication functions and our education system pays little attention to developing it. This is a problem because listening does not come naturally – it is an acquired skill. We may possess some of the key attributes that make for effective listening, but we learn listening behaviors, much in the same way we learn to read, write, and speak. This is best accomplished through training and practice.

Self-Reflect to Evaluate Your Listening Skills

Self-reflection is a good place to begin when it comes to assessing your listening proficiency. To see how you stack up as a listener ask yourself some of these basic questions:

  • Do I think ahead about what I want my message to accomplish and how my audience might react or do I frame a discussion based on my preferences?

  • Do I keep an open mind or am I immediately judgmental/critical of others thoughts and ideas?

  • Am I focused and present in the moment or am I distracted during a conversation?

  • Do I listen to ideas or get caught up in specific facts of a message?

  • Am I able to digest the essence of the message, ask good questions, and advance the conversation or have I formulated my response before the speaker finishes?

  • Am I giving advice and/or solving the speaker’s problems or creating a dialogue that will allow him/her to work it out?

  • Am I aware of the effects of non-verbal behaviors (mine and the speaker’s) on the message or do I focus primarily on the words?

5 Steps to Improve Your Listening

Based on your response to these questions, there are some proactive steps you can take to improve your listening abilities.

  1. Take Initiative – Make the effort to understand your audience and determine what they know about the topic. Look for common areas of interest to promote your message. Concentrate on what is being said and show genuine interest in other’s ideas/feedback.

  2. Focus on ideas rather than people – Listen for central ideas. Be critical of content. Look to separate opinion from evidence. In cases where there are differences, look to critique ideas rather than the people presenting them. This involves separating personal biases from the message itself.

  3. Resist external distractions – Be aware of your surroundings and concentrate on eliminating anything that distracts from the discussion.

  4. Recognize and diffuse emotional triggers – Be aware of emotional hot buttons. Know the words and actions that can trigger emotion. Suspend reactions until you determine the full context of the message.

  5. Identify non-verbal behaviors – The actual words that a speaker uses in the message are only a small part of what determines a reaction/response. Research suggests that less than 30 percent of the meaning attached to a message comes from the verbal component. Tone and body language account for about 70 percent the interpretation. Look for contradictions between the verbal and non-verbal message.

  6. Practice makes perfect – Good listening requires basic training and ongoing practice through intentional exposure to a variety of listening situations. Continually working to hone listening skills means increases self-awareness and applying the best approach in a given situation.

Listening is the most important and least understood communication skill managers have at their disposal. Understanding what effective listening entails, allocating resources to help people build those skills, and modeling good listening at all levels of the organization is a sound strategy for increasing performance and productivity. In addition, effective listening acts to eliminate the tangible and intangible costs associated with poor communication practices.

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