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When it comes to listening big ears just aren’t enough

December 7, 2010

Chester (author's dog) attentively listening for signs of a snack

Can you remember a time when you had a conversation with a colleague and you left the room thinking one thing, but later discover that the other person took something completely different from the same conversation? (BTW my wife claims to have many examples involving me and conversations about jobs to be done around the house!)

Similarly, have you been talking to a colleague but sensed that they were not really listening?

Listening is a core skill to being effective at work. How good you are at listening has a big impact on the quality of your relationships with your boss, colleagues and your team. As well as avoiding misunderstandings, being a good listener enhances your ability to build new relationships, influence and lead others.

So where does listening go wrong?

The issue invariably lies with where our attention is when we’re listening.  We can only really listen to one thing at a time.

Our attention is either turned outward and on the person we’re talking to, or inward on our own thoughts and concerns. Whenever our attention turns in and we start thinking, judging, dismissing or leaping to conclusions about what’s being said rather than actually listening – that’s where the problem starts.

Despite being a ‘natural skill’ listening isn’t easy. The way we listen to others tends to be habitual, and like many habits it takes practice to change and improve. And to be honest, listening is something we could all be better at!

Active listening is the term given to a technique where you make a conscious decision to not only listen to the words being spoken but also to understand what is being said. This means you need to:

  • Give 100% of your attention – Keep comfortable eye contact, ignore environmental distractions, watch and listen for the non-verbal communication cues as well as the words.
  • Demonstrate you have heard – Provide your own non-verbal cues such as nodding, smiling and keeping an open and inviting posture. Also give small verbal cues such ‘yes’ or ‘okay’.
  • Feedback and reflect back what has been said – To make sure you’ve heard correctly, paraphrase and summarise what has been said and ask for confirmation that you have the message straight – even with the best intention our personal filters and assumptions can add distortions.
  • Clarify any areas of ambiguity – Questions such as ‘When you say … does this mean …’ can flush out where understanding may differ.

Give it try and let me know how you get on.

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2 Comments
  1. I have an additional factor – about 90% of the staff at MPOW are using English as their second or even third language.

    It’s crucial to practice active listening – and tailoring my communication to them is a subject for another discussion. Having said that, my colleagues are highly educated (I work in an academic environment) so most of them are aware that they need to practice active listening as well.

    On the whole it works – although the cultural clash is often more difficult than the language one.

  2. English as a second language would certainly underline the necessity to practice active listening. It’s a particularly interesting point you make about cultural differences being harder to deal with than listening difficulties. I’d certainly be interested to hear of others experience.
    Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

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