listening to understand

January 28, 2019

Listening is the ability to accurately interpret and receive messages during the communication process. It is not just a passive process but is in fact an active process that requires a certain degree of focus and engagement. It is quite separate from the process of ‘hearing’, which merely means registering the sounds around you. Listening means not only receiving the message but also deciphering it; it also means closely observing the speaker and noting how the message is told, the verbiage, the voice, intonation, pitch, and also the body language of the speaker. In other words, it means being aware of both obvious and subliminal cues. Your effectiveness as a listener depends on your ability to distinguish between these cues and understand them.

In my experience, most managers and leaders do not pay enough attention to listening, as they take it for granted, and believe themselves to be great listeners. They often end up being surprised, when presented with feedback from their bosses, team members, and peers regarding listening. The feedback often reveals that others see them as inconsiderate, impatient, arrogant, or judgmental. If these perceived behaviors are not corrected, then they translate into poor interpersonal and working relationships, and poor performance.

Poor listeners are usually represented in uncomplimentary ways such that colleagues, direct reports, and others may say things like “She’s anyway going to do what she thinks is right, why bother expressing my thoughts?” or “He does not really care about what I think or say.”

Here are five signs that your listening skills need attention

01 you are easily distracted. Multi-tasking is a liability especially when you are supposed to be focussing your attention to actively listening to the person. To limit the distractions when you are talking to somebody, do not shuffle papers, accept phone calls, or show in any way that you are not interested in what is being said.

02 you are already thinking about your response. Many times it so happens that leaders are already thinking of what comes next, they are already composing their response in their heads while the other person is still talking. This indicates your listening quotient is low—it is hard for you to focus on the speaker.

03 you might offer your advice promptly. Many leaders just go into the problem-solving mode, they feel compelled to be solution providers to their teams. Do you find yourself dissecting the message to look for a solution before the person has presented the whole problem and shared their thoughts?

04 you may dismiss others’ feelings. A person’s whole self is about 50 percent emotions that stem from her life and work experiences. If you are not in touch with others’ emotions, you could miss out on what is really happening with your team. Do not negate people’s feeling by telling not to feel the way they do, and try to provide an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their feeling.

05 you shun silence. Many leaders feel uncomfortable in silence and obligated to fill the silent pauses. These reactions reduce the other person’s time to think and react. Do you take up most of the time talking in dialogues?

Thus, being aware of the above five flaws of listening and making concerted efforts to improve your listening, will ensure your message lands well and others understand and receive you better.

Michael Hoppe, author of Active Listening, believes that the impact of poor listening is far-reaching. Assessments of thousands of leaders in CCL’s database 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.
  • encouraging direct reports to share.
  • imagining someone else’s point of view.

The ability to listen effectively is an essential component of leadership, but few leaders know just what it takes to become a better listener. You can improve your ability to lead effectively by learning the skills for active listening.

Active listening involves paying attention, withholding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing, and sharing. And each listening skill requires several techniques or behaviors.

  • be mindful and pay attention: one goal of active listening is to create a comfortable and safe environment for communication, set a warm tone, and permit time and opportunity for the speaker to deliberate and speak. Be aware and pay attention to your body language and frame of mind. Be focused on the moment and give respect to the speaker.
  • withhold judgment: for effective communication, one must be open to consider and appreciate others’ point of view as also new ideas and possibilities that may differ from one’s own standpoint. Even when sensible listeners have strong opinions and reasons, they suspend judgment, hold their criticism, and avoid arguing or pushing their agenda right away.
  • reflect and recapitulate: learn to mirror the other person’s info and emotions by paraphrasing key points. Do not assume that you have understood the message correctly in the form and manner desired or that the opposite person is aware that you have understood. Reflecting is a way to ensure that you are on the same page as the speaker.
  • clarify: do not hesitate to raise queries regarding any issue that is ambiguous or unclear. Open-ended, clarifying, and inquiring questions are vital tools that aid in gaining clarity. They help draw people out and cause them to expand their concepts, while encouraging reflection and thoughtful response.
  • summarize: restating key themes as the conversation yield confirms and solidifies your grasp of the opposite perspective on the matter being discussed. It also helps each party to be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up. Briefly summarize what you have understood as you listened, and ask the other party to do the same.
  • share: active listening is about understanding the person first and then about being understood yourself. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can then introduce your concepts, feelings and suggestions. You may reference a similar experience or challenge that you have had and then introduce an idea or a concept. You can refer to a comment made previously in the conversation to build your rapport.

In your leadership journey, applying these six skills needed for active listening will help you become not only an effective communicator but also a more effective leader.