We are taught how to sell; to negotiate and read a spreadsheet but in all our training, we are not taught to listen. Surely, you might say, listening is something we do instinctively and yes we do but do we actually hear? Are we listening properly?
I have both observed and managed projects and people over many years and the fact that never ceases to amaze me is the number of errors that occur, simply because people do not listen attentively. When something goes awry – maybe the loss of a customer or an inability to close a sale – we try and analyse what went wrong when often, it can be attributed to a breakdown in communication and failing to listening.
It is easy to identify the individual who is not listening. They may fidget, doodle or gaze out of the window but sometimes it is more subtle. They play the game and appear to be paying attention but observe closely and you will spot the tell-tale signs: they do not ask questions nor repeat back statements that confirm their understanding of the address.
Active listening is an enormously important skill and should not be under-rated. Without active listening there is potential for vital information to be misunderstood or even completely missed. So how do we become Active Listeners? In order to develop the skill, one needs to understand the concept and learn to apply the principles.
Most people believe there is only one type of listening: in fact there are at least three types; the first of which is:
Cosmetic listening – this is ‘pretend’ listening. It’s how you listen to what is being said when really, you’re doing something else like reading the paper or watching TV. Cosmetic listening gives the impression that you are listening to the other person. And we all do it. How many times have you found yourself in conversation with a member of your team who has come to seek advice or discuss a situation only to find your eyes drawn to a Report you still have to review or a message to return a ‘phone call? If you’re clever you can convey the message that you’re hanging on their every word and make encouraging sounds but in reality, you are somewhere else. When you are in cosmetic listening mode it is impossible to ask relevant and meaningful questions because you just don’t have an adequate grasp of what is being said.
the second is:
Conversational Listening – As the name suggests, this listening occurs when you are engaged in conversation and follows a pattern of listening, thinking and responding. This is the most common type of listening as it occurs spontaneously when we converse on a topic of mutual interest. We are engaged; we are ‘in the moment’ and listening attentively and thinking about what is being said in order to formulate a response however, if the topic is of less interest or importance to one of the parties, the listening breaks down.
With both cosmetic and conversational listening “Are you listening to me?” is a question which is frequently posed. You can identify people who are cosmetic or conversational listeners since they are likely to ask irrelevant questions that do not relate to the discussion or else they will ask a question the answer to which you have already covered. Children are great at cosmetic listening!
Whenever I have been involved in delivering training and seminars, I have found it remarkable how many people listen only cosmetically, particularly in interactive sessions. A question is posed and the delegates either look at you blank or answer in a way which exposes their inattention. A classic example of this was portrayed in an episode of ‘The Office’ when during a session, the Trainer asks about daydreams. Clearly Gareth’s mind is elsewhere since when Tim asks him “Fantasy Gareth. What’s yours?” he replies “Two lesbians probably”. You get the idea!
Recently, I was asked to sit-in on a very important project meeting; it lasted some three and half hours and after it finished and the Chairman left, some members of the team sat around exchanging information because they openly admitted they were not listening properly. When you have project meetings like this the projects usually fail to achieve the goal and the interested team members, the ones listening, become demotivated.
Some years ago, I was asked by a Recruitment Agency, to assist them in advancing their business from Secondary to Primary Supplier status with their major Clients. A brief was devised and it was agreed that I should, as an observer, accompany the Representatives on their Customer Sales Visits.
One visit took us to carton manufacturer whose business apparently, the Agency had been chasing for years. I sat quietly throughout the meeting and listened. At the end, we left empty-handed and my colleague lamented that yet again he was unable to secure the deal. I ask him what it was that the customer wanted and he regaled me with a list of admirable staff qualities such as loyalty, reliability, punctuality etc. I stopped him dead: “And?” I asked. He looked at me blank.
OK, I had the advantage since it wasn’t me that was delivering the pitch and pushing for the business but I had written down what the business owner had said. “I don’t want to be ‘sold to’”. He just wanted someone to help him staff his business. He felt his other suppliers did not understand his staffing needs because all they recommended was that “You need more staff”.
Taking this information on board, we did a speculative visit a few days later. There was no hard sell. We explained how we would like to do business with his Company and asked him how things were with both the staffing and the business. Through Active Listening we had identified his needs and the Salesman left with three vacancies to fill and the promise of further business which quickly increased.
the third type of listening is:
Active/Deep listening (Master Listening) – This can only be undertaken with a clear mind – you must silence all the mental chatter in order to focus on what is being said. Put out of your mind the ‘phone call you must return or the groceries you must pick up on the way home. Active listening requires great concentration. Give your complete attention to what is being said and record the fact, whether mentally or by making notes.
Active listening when practiced, imparts a greater understanding of what is being communicated and can help to form an insight into both what is being said and what is not being said. It is as important for the for the Manager as it is for the Salesman or Receptionist as failing to listen actively precludes one from being able to ‘dig deeper’ and gain further information. As an example: you may ask a question and receive a satisfactory response but recognize that it is limited and merits development. The Active Listener will sense any reticence and can then pursue the line of enquiry in order to elicit more information. When listening actively you will find maintaining a dialogue easier as each exchange can be expanded upon by the use of the open enquiries: What? When? Who? Why? and How?
To be skilled at Active Listening it is necessary to take control of one’s own worry, fear anger, grief, individual bias, prejudice and verbal clutter and to conquer any inclination one might have toward world-weariness, preoccupation and inattentiveness. By employing Active Listening we ensure our language is neither controlling nor judgmental. The spoken word of the Active Listener is therefore deliberate and questions should be asked in an even tone with measured speed and a degree of warmth. For example; “How can we work together to make this project succeed?” delivered calmly and with sincerity, creates a powerful question to which hopefully, the Manager, Customer or Staff member will give great thought to before answering and because you are focused on their response, you are much less likely to find random thoughts entering your head and thereby avoid involuntary outbursts such as: “I think that’s rubbish” or “You’re just moaning again” which would destroy the interaction completely.
We all know the frustration of not being listened to so
How do we learn to listen actively?
The first step is to assess your own listening skills.
Engage in a brief conversation with an associate or ask them to read a passage from a book or magazine then, summarize the exchange or narration. During this exercise, observe and note the number of times you allow your mind to wander or your attention to be distracted. Review your findings, evaluate the efficacy of your comprehension and identify any areas in which you could improve.
Here are some tips for improving your listening
1) Look directly at the person with whom you are talking and maintain eye contact 2) Remain relaxed 3) Suspend judgment 4) Think in pictures - visualize what the person is trying to say 5) Allow the other person finish their words before responding - it demonstrates respect 6) Clarify any point upon which you are unclear 7) Be aware of body language and watch for facial expressions, body movements and posture 8) Learn to summarize the exchange in order to reinforce and confirm your understanding
Over twenty years in business and consultancy, educated to degree level in business and finance. Currently working as writer and life/performance coaching.