So yes, it's a controversial title, but many say that listening is fast becoming a lost art and this is especially true for leaders. We have more ways to communicate than ever before in history, yet we have forgotten how to listen and its not a skill we teach often. We teach how to communicate, how to 'get your message out there', how to 'be heard' but not how to hear others. We have also developed a philosophy that managers/bosses/leaders should know everything and be the font of all knowledge. So if you know everything, what's the point of listening at all?
I believe the Dalai Lama said it best "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” The benefits of really listening to staff, colleagues are clients happen on so many fronts from early detection of problems to building trust and respect and increasing employee intrinsic motivation and loyalty. So its only when we stop talking, that we can really start to build our relationships with others.
Listening is a lot more than waiting for the other person to stop talking, it's about paying attention and learning to silence your inner voice so you can listen to theirs. Listening can be hard work at times, silencing our inner dialogue can be challenging, I'm not an expert but I have to work at it, it's especially challenging when you can't be physically present with the person and in today's world of skyping and teleconferencing its even more difficult. So here are three simple tips for learning to be a more effective listener, if you can do even one of these all the time you will see your relationships blossom.
Devices away.... Face to face meetings mean that phones are a no no. You cannot be focused on a conversation if you are waiting for a better option to come along, which is what your phone out means. If you have an absolute must urgent call, set a unique ring tone, preface the meeting as to the need for the call and put the phone in your bag or away. If you are using the phone for a teleconference or skype then use it simply for that, resist the urge to minimise the screen and continue on with other work. "When we break eye contact to check our phones we degrade trust. Let’s keep our phones away from meals & meetings." Simon Sinek is a great promoter of phone detox to reinvigorate communication in business and at home. Try putting the phone away for an hour and see how your communication improves.
Be present... Just a phone is a great distractor, our internal dialogue often presents a major barrier for active listening. Silencing your inner dialogue takes active practice often. I find that meditation is the best way to practice this regularly and a good way to warm into mindful practice when listening to others and it can actually change the chemistry of your brain (check out this great Forbes article). If you do want to dive straight in, imagine with every conversation that you will have to repeat the content to someone else. Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused, with senses fully alert. This is where listening differs from waiting your turn to speak. Listen with an intent to understand, rather than listening with an intent to reply.
Reflecting and paraphrasing for understanding... Even when we do practice being present and active listening, it's no guarantee we will get the message right so using questioning, reflecting, paraphrasing and summarising can help you to ensure that the message you received is correct. As with most things it's the execution of this that counts, so making sure that you do this tackfully is key. Try not to speak over the person when you clarify, give them time to finish and where possible allow for a pause. Introduce the clarification clearly, "So what I am hearing is..." "So if I understand what you are saying correctly, you mean/feel/think..." etc. Also try to mirror the language, if the speak has focused on thinking and facts, then don't reflect on that with feelings and hopes, keep to the same medium.
Plenty of people are great speakers, but few are good listeners. If you develop the latter skill, you will find yourself invited into amazing conversations that wouldn’t otherwise happen, you might learn something new and you may find those deep and meaningful connections that come with feeling acknowledged. So shut up... and maybe they'll love you... more.