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Written by Natalie Anderson
Published: December 15, 2017

Are you listening?

American author and presidential speechwriter James Humes once said “the art of communication is the language of leadership” (Paymar, 2012, para. 7).  While a 2014 Gallup survey identified texting as the most dominant form of communication for Americans under age 50 (Newport, 2014, para. 1), verbal communication – and specifically listening – may be one of the most underrated and underutilized tools leaders can use to build a more engaged workforce.

We’re evaluated at birth for the ability to hear. We’re taught to read and write in school.  Many of us have even participated in public speaking training. In fact, Toastmasters International boasts 352,000 memberships and 16,400 clubs in 141 countries with the assurance that confident speakers make stronger leaders (http://www.toastmasters.org/about/who-we-are). But how many have had formal instruction on how to listen? Why do we devalue one of our most fundamental and critical ways of engaging with one another?

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) suggests the impact of poor listening is far-reaching. The Center’s assessments indicate that many leaders fall short on abilities that directly relate to their listening skills, including accepting criticism and making necessary changes in their behavior, trying to understand what other people think before making judgments, and encouraging direct reports to share. (https://www.ccl.org/multimedia/podcast/listening-and-leadership/)

In today's world of digital distraction and information overload we are in danger of losing our listening skills (Horowitz, 2012, para. 12). Intranets, private messaging, chat rooms, discussion forums, and internal blogs are some just some of the many communication tools frequently used in today’s workplace. With the pervasiveness of technology in communication and as the need for an inclusive, engaged workforce accelerates, effective listening has never been more crucial.

Listening has a bad rap for passivity; it “just happens,” without effort or commitment. We can pick up certain cues, but you really can’t “tell” if someone is listening. Hearing and listening are often used interchangeably…as if eyesight is to reading as hearing is to listening. It’s mixing the natural, subconscious physiological process with a learned skill. 

The most common barriers to listening include:

  • Environmental or physical – anything distracting in your environment – sitting in a loud, conference room or a cold, sterile office. Poor body language, lack of eye contact, and fidgeting can also detract.
  • Attitudinal – maybe you have a pre-conceived opinion about a particular employee or you are frustrated with the impact of a new company policy. Speaker or topic evaluation can creep into our ability to listen with an open-mind.
  • Personal distractions – who hasn’t worked on the grocery list or thought about weekend plans while allegedly listening intently?
  • Problem solving – leaders tend to be problem solvers, and the wheels often start turning as soon as someone begins sharing. Why bother listening if you already have a solution to the issue at hand?
  • Interrupting - people tend to interrupt when they feel more powerful than others in the room or when they want to signal power to others (Gino, 2017, para. 8). Surprisingly both men and women are equal offenders when it comes to interrupting women (New Republic, 2014, para 1).

So how can leaders become better listeners?  Effective listening is a two-way street that requires engagement on the part of the speaker and the listener. The Center for Management and Organizational Effectiveness (n.d.) posit strategic leaders listen for both the content of the message and the feelings being expressed by others (para. 2). Paying attention to both factors will help the listener understand how to interpret the meaning, inferences, and implications that the message has for the future.

Imagine the powerful benefits if every single encounter with coworkers encompassed agreement and understanding of key messages as well as acknowledgment and acceptance of feelings. Below are simple, powerful steps you can take to improve your listening skills.

  • Mind Your Non-Verbals – demonstrate non-verbal signs of listening through body position, facial expression, gestures and posture. Use affirmative head nods. Maintain culturally appropriate eye contact. Lean forward to communicate interest. Consider paralanguage, (volume, rate, pitch, tone, pronunciation). It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.
  • “Say more” response – make statements to encourage the speaker to continue, such as “Tell me more,” “I see,” or “What happened next?” and attending phrases such as “uh huh.”
  • Questioning – ask open-ended questions to gain clarification, additional information or insight. Use openers such as “what” or “how” as opposed to “don’t you think that” or “isn’t it true that?”
  • Paraphrase – reflect back, in your own words, your understanding of the speaker’s message. Begin with “What you are saying is…” or “Ultimately, I think your point is…” Confirm with the speaker that you have accurately captured his/her intent.
  • Reflect and Restate – reflect back the feelings or hidden meaning behind the speaker’s statements, often demonstrated through facial expressions, body language and paralanguage. “I can understand your frustration with the situation.” “I sense that you are very upset.” “I recognize this was difficult for you.”
  • Clarify – ensure you have an accurate understanding of the speaker’s intent. “Let me make sure I understand...”
  • Challenge – express disagreement that communicates you listened to the employee’s point of view. Paraphrase before expressing your opinion. Be open to listen to additional information. Consider: “What I heard you say is…. I’d like to offer another perspective.” Avoid: “Here’s what’s wrong with that.” “What bothers me about that is…”
  • Matching – match the rate, intensity and concern of the employee. And by all means, do not interrupt.

An ancient proverb says “We have been given two ears and but a single mouth in order that we may hear more and talk less.” As you manage the myriad of challenging and changing dynamics throughout your day, put into practice a greater understanding and awareness of the role and impact of listening. And, the next time you are tempted in interrupt, take a breath and listen. You may be surprised by what you hear.

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Natalie Anderson

Written by Natalie Anderson