As a coach and consultant, I spend lots of time listening to people describe their situation, their problem, their frustration, etc. My clients expect me to offer insights, knowledge, and perspectives to help them create better results either personally or professionally. In many respects, I am a “professional listener.” From this experience, I have found that hearing is easy and listening is hard.
A quick review of some statistics about listening, compiled by the International Listening Association (http://www.listen.org/), yields some insight into why listening is so hard:
- Most of us are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful about 75% of the time we should be listening.
- We listen at 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1000-3000 words per minute.
As hard as it is to listen effectively, it is still vitally important. Take a look at these additional statistics from the International Listening Association:
- Immediately after we listen to someone, we only recall about 50% of what they said.
- Long-term, we only remember 20% of what we hear.
- More than 35 business studies indicate that listening is a top skill needed for success in business.
My first thought as I began this article was: “I'm about to communicate an idea that everyone has heard before.” However, my experience as a “professional listener” tells me that the topic carries enough importance to justify the reminder. More importantly, I'll share five tips to help you improve your skill in this vital leadership competence.
1. Listen to understand, not to respond
Effective listening goes beyond hearing someone's words. Effective listening creates an environment where the other person feels that you understand them.
This tip applies to attitude more than it does to behavior. Many people view dialogue like a tennis match where the two parties square off and hit the ball back-and-forth. In this approach to conversation, both parties are adversaries trying to “score the point.”
To listen effectively, I suggest that you view dialogue more like a pitcher and catcher in a baseball game. The pitcher (speaker) throws the ball for the catcher (you) to receive it. The catcher only throws the ball back after he has it firmly in his grasp.
In other words, listen to receive the meaning. Once you understand, then you can respond.
2. Be quiet
Being quiet gives you the opportunity to hear the words, the tone, and the meaning behind the words. It gives you the chance to observe the speaker's body language.
To help you remember this tip, I'll share two quick statements with you:
- “When your mouth is open, your ears are closed.”
- “LISTEN and SILENT have the same letters.”
3. Let them finish their thoughts
In other words, don't interrupt the speaker. From the previous tip, this idea seems obvious. However, I have seen many arguments and misunderstandings that stemmed from interruptions. It's hard to remain silent. It's even harder to remain silent until someone has completely expressed their idea.
4. Maintain eye contact
Effective listening means observing everything about the speaker's message. People communicate at least as much with their body language as they do with their words. Good listeners learn to “listen” with their eyes as well as with their ears.
If you choose to work on something else (answer e-mail, fill out paperwork, etc.) while someone is speaking to you, they will not “feel” that they were heard.
5. Ask questions to ensure that you understand
Just because you heard the words and observed the body language, don't assume that you understand. If a particular point is unclear to you, ask a question to clarify it before you respond.
Even if you think you understand the message, make sure you do by clarifying it with the speaker. You might say something like:
- “Just to be sure I understand you, let me repeat back to you what I thought you said…”
- “I heard you say… Is that correct?”
- “If I understand correctly, your concern is…”
When you clarify, remember to let them correct your understanding. You don't have to agree with their perspective. You do have to make sure that you understand it.
Good leaders are good listeners. Effective listening helps to resolve conflicts, build trust, inspire people, and strengthen teams. It often requires you to “bite your tongue,” and, from my personal experience, I know that it can be hard work. I also know that the results are worth the effort.