Most of us understand the importance of good communication skills, but all too often we forget that half of good communication is good listening. Think of your workplace. Think of all the people you encounter throughout the day: customers, clients, boss, co-workers, etc. You probably have a variety of feelings about all of these people. I bet you can remember the ones who are good listeners. I also bet you know how you feel when someone is truly present with you and shows that you have his or her attention. Doesn’t it feel good to know that your voice has found an audience? Given the power of this feeling, it’s a wonder that listening skills aren’t more of a focus in and out of our workplaces. They are powerful skills to build.
In the fast-paced, high-demand jobs so many of us have these days, good listening skills, unfortunately, have become something of a novelty. Our time is precious because of ever-impending deadlines, constant distractions, and the general stress that pervades the workplace. If you commit to being a better listener at work, you will likely notice some of these challenges subside.
So, how might listening skills impact your workplace environment or any environment for that matter? Consider your experience now. Do you feel heard at work? What do you notice about people who are sincerely present with you when you are speaking, as opposed to those who are anxious to move on to the next task or are simply waiting for their turn to speak? When someone is really present with you, it makes communication easier. You may feel more connected, more at ease. You’re also more likely to get your message across clearly. Good listening skills reduce miscommunication.
Think of the best listener you know. What if you were that kind of expert listener for everyone else? How would it impact your workplace experience if co-workers knew that when they spoke to you, they could count on you to pay close attention to them? What if they knew that they could count on you to not misinterpret, misread, manipulate, or otherwise misconstrue their message?
Excellent listening skills go a long way, particularly if you are a leader. Being able to communicate, understand, and connect with your employees is a crucial component of effective leadership. According to a study in The Journal of Occupational Health, it was concluded that “… psychological stress reactions were lower in subordinates who worked under supervisors with high listening skills.”
In another study cited by the journal, Small Group Research, results indicated “… that emergent leaders typically display more effective listening skills than other members.”
The research on the positive effects of good listening skills supports what I have consistently found to be true in my business consulting work. Leaders often ask me how to support their team. I respond to their question with one of my own, “How often do you ask your employees the following kinds of questions?”
Leaders are surprised when they discover how a simple intervention, such as asking better questions, can be so effective at resolving complex problems. Even though this is a simple change in behavior, any new way of approaching situations takes regular practice. (Stay tuned. You’ll have the chance to do so at the end of this chapter.)
Over the years, I’ve witnessed a vast array of positive changes when leaders start asking these questions with consistency and sincerity. These questions offer the opportunity to engage in active listening and lead to productive conversations. Furthermore, this kind of dialogue directly engages employees, and as we discussed last chapter, engaged employees stick around and work more productively.
These kinds of questions are not limited to leadership or your work environment. Asking questions that convey your curiosity to others can be a great way to practice your listening skills. If this is a new strategy for you, my advice is to start with what and how questions because open-ended questions allow people the freedom to express whatever’s on their mind. If being curious isn’t your default, don’t fret: you can cultivate curiosity through practice. By asking open-ended questions of others more regularly, you will soon see the benefits. The more people feel that they are being listened to and that their input is valued, the more value they will add.
A good strategy for remembering how to cultivate curiosity comes from a counseling orientation called Motivational Interviewing. This strategy is called OARS. The acronym stands for:
Developing our ability to listen will impact all of our environments. Here are three more tips to improve your listening skills.
We sometimes get caught up in how we are going to respond to something while the other person is still speaking. Prematurely thinking of what to say next reduces your ability to thoroughly process what someone is saying. Attending to what someone is saying, without simultaneously focusing on how to respond, will create stronger communication. Remain focused on the present moment and thoroughly digest what is being said.
Often in the workplace (and in many environments) we are moving at what feels like a million miles a minute. This frantic pace minimizes our ability to fully take in information presented at any given juncture. Take a few moments to consciously breathe as you converse with someone. This practice will help you to be more present and process what they are saying more effectively. Before you speak, or when you are feeling overwhelmed, stop and take a deep breath. This may sound trivial, but this small step can do wonders. By reducing your stress and increasing your capacity to be in the present, you increase your ability to communicate. If you need additional help in slowing down and staying present, revisit the section on Nourishment and apply what you learned about mindfulness to the development of your listening skills.
Our immediate default in conversation is to fill silence. I suggest resisting this urge. Even if you have something to say, by waiting a couple of extra seconds (or perhaps many), you allow for more ideas to flow on either end. This may sound obvious, but when you ask someone a question, it’s important to give them time to respond. This means not jumping in to answer for them while they’re formulating their ideas. We don’t all process information at the same speed. Our discomfort with a sustained pause often disrupts those that may need a couple extra moments to gather their thoughts. Having good listening skills requires patience, and getting comfortable with silence is part of the drill.
CHAPTER 17 ACTIVITY
For the next couple of weeks, test some of the behaviors listed above. After you’ve had the opportunity to track your progress, reflect on what worked and what came most naturally to you. For noticeable results, you may have to practice one, two, or all three behaviors, at least 4 times a week for three weeks. After you’ve practiced, answer the following questions: How did the behaviors work, if they worked at all? What did you learn? How did you practice each behavior? How long did you practice each new behavior? Test your results.
After a few weeks of practice, ask a few co-workers the following question:
Take note of their observations and suggestions. See what themes emerge and continue to practice.
Finally, don’t forget to keep asking these questions:
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