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Can You Hear Me Now? 6 Tips to Improve Your Listening Skills!

July 17, 2014

By: Terri Williams

Listening is the foundation of effective communication. The ability to actually hear and understand what is being said is critical to establishing and maintaining workable relationships with coworkers and clients, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and reaching organizational goals.

But despite the importance of listening skills, they’re sorely lacking in most business - and personal - settings!

Research reveals that people only retain 25 percent to 50 percent of what they hear. In terms of receiving directions or reaching an agreement, the implications of missing so much information are far-reaching. Miscommunication, misunderstandings, and mishaps are inevitable when more than half of what has been said is lost.

But what causes people to be such poor listeners? And how can they be so oblivious to this fact?  Good questions...

For one reason, most people are more concerned about what they have to say than what the other person is saying. As a result, whenever they’re not talking, they’re thinking about what they are going to say next. However, listening takes concentration and it is extremely difficult to hear what someone else is saying while formulating your own response.

Other hindrances to listening include distractions in the form of other people, electronic devices, or competing thoughts. Ironically, some people can repeat what was said verbatim – and yet they’re still guilty of not listening. How on earth is this possible? They failed to embrace the many elements of active listening.

Active listening involves not only hearing what is said, but also noticing nonverbal communication (the silent messages!). The speaker’s facial expressions, posture, and other types of body language may send an entirely different message from the words that they speak.

For example, you may sense a change in an employee’s demeanor and ask if there is a problem. While the employee may verbally respond that there is not a problem, if you’re actively listening, you may notice that this individual has their arms folded, failed to make eye contact with you, and replied with a terse “no.”

Clearly, there is a problem, whether it is personal or work-related. And if, for example, you recently significantly increased this employee’s workload without increasing their paycheck, there’s a good chance that the “problem” is work related.  However, if you are not an active listener, you can miss these communication ques.

So how can YOU develop active listening skills?

1. Always look at the speaker and maintain eye contact.

Give the speaker your undivided attention. In fact, it’s actually rude for you to text, check email or perform other tasks while someone else is talking to you. Also, look the speaker in the eye instead of focusing on other objects in the room.  If it's a matter of it being difficult to concentrate while looking someone in the eye...let them know you are listening, and it's easier for you to focus when looking away.

2. Use positive body language.

Occasionally nod, smile or make other gestures that show that you’re engaged in the conversation. Refrain from folding your arms, since this may project an aura of defensiveness, impatience, or an unwillingness to accept what is being said.

3. Carefully observe the speaker’s body language.

This is a critical part of active listening. Does the speaker’s body language match what is being said, or is it sending a contradictory message? If the two don’t match, you may need to delve deeper to find out what’s actually going on.

4. Really listen to what’s being said.

It’s possible to maintain eye contact and nod at the appropriate times and yet, not be fully engaged. Instead of thinking of your response – or what you plan to have for dinner – concentrate on what the speaker is trying to tell you.

5. Don’t interrupt the speaker.

According to Dianne Shilling, in an article for Forbes Magazine, when you interrupt the speaker, it sends several messages, such as:

“I’m more important than you are.”
“What I have to say is more interesting, accurate or relevant.”
“I don’t really care what you think.”
“I don’t have time for your opinion.”
“This isn’t a conversation, it’s a contest, and I’m going to win.”

6. Wait for pauses in the conversation, and then ask questions or make comments.

Dr. Scott Williams of the Department of Management at Wright University refers to this as “reflecting.” Actually listen to what is being said, and then, instead of just repeating the information, paraphrase it back to the speaker, and also ask questions.

Wright notes these common objections to reflecting:

    • Reflecting slows down the conversation and wastes time. Reflecting does take time, but it can also save time lost due to miscommunication.
    • Reflecting sounds phony and patronizing. While it may be awkward at first, with practice, you can become skilled at this important communication skill.
    • I don’t have time to be a confidante to all of my direct reports. That’s a valid point for managers. However, if you send the message to your staff that listening to them is not a priority, this will negatively impact relationships and morale.

Listening effectively requires a commitment of time and effort. Taking the time to develop and implement active listening skills can improve the level of your communication, increase the quality of your relationships and decrease the potential for misunderstandings and mishaps!


Improve your communication skills

Terri Williams

Terri Williams began writing professionally in 1997, working with a large nonprofit organization. Her business, education, and lifestyle articles have appeared in various online publications including Yahoo, USA Today, The Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report University Directory, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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