Are You Really Listening? Your Career Could Depend on it

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Most of us don't get it. Few skills are as critical to our success as our ability to listen. And even though we may think we are good listeners, most of us are not.

If you think you're a good listener, ask your family. Studies show that while bosses and clients rank us the highest for listening skills, our families score us the lowest. Peers rank us about the same as we rank ourselves, and our direct reports often give us poorer marks than we give ourselves.

In order to be good listeners, we must be active listeners. Active listeners:
Make a commitment to listen. They take a deep, cleansing breath, minimize distractions, look the speaker in the eye, and make a silent commitment to listen.

Listen to understand first. Instead of mentally framing their response, active listeners pay close attention to what the speaker is saying, and they strive to understand not only the content but the feelings behind the content. "Listen until it hurts," a friend who is a wonderful listener. This advice requires us to listen with our eyes as well as our ears, place our agendas aside, reserve judgment, and not interrupt. If we have a question or comment we write it down for later.

React to the message. Active listeners are "whole body listeners." In addition to maintaining excellent eye contact, they offer positive cues like smiling, leaning into the speaker, nodding, and taking notes. "Feedback is the breakfast of champions," writes Ken Blanchard, coauthor of The One-Minute Manager and other motivational books.

Briefly summarize. Active listeners paraphrase, but don't parrot. They allow time for the speaker to respond and confirm if they understood correctly.
We spend more time listening - fifty-five percent -- than any other form of communication, according to a U.S. Department of Labor study. (Speaking accounts for only twenty-three percent, while the remaining twenty-two percent is spent on reading and writing.) Because we listen so much, it also means that there are more opportunities for confusion and misunderstanding.

A University of Minnesota study showed that nearly sixty percent of misunderstandings in the business world can be attributed to poor listening. The same study traced only one percent of misunderstandings to written communications. Summarizing and waiting for confirmation helps clear up confusion and avoid misunderstandings.

In today's business world active listening is not enough. To be a great communicator -- or what I call a "high voltage communicator" -- we have to listen empathetically. When we listen empathetically, others feel seen, heard, and understood.

Empathetic listeners:
Focus on feelings even more than facts. They look for what is not being said. They look at facial expressions, notice tone of voice, and pay attention to their own gut reaction. They know that by focusing on feelings they encourage the speaker to explore the core of the problem -- his or her emotions.

Use a "feeling vocabulary." They speak from the heart. I am a "thinker" on the Myer-Briggs Indicator, so speaking about feelings does not come easily. If you are a thinker like me you may find that using this fill-in-the-blank sentence is particularly helpful: "You feel _________ because ______________."

Nudge the speaker to a solution. In most cases, if you allow the speaker to talk all the emotion out, he or she will start looking for solutions. Al-Anon (a fellowship for friends and families of alcoholics) teaches not to tell others what to do, but to share "our own experience, strength, and hope." Others may relate our story to their own and see a solution they have not seen before.

I once worked with a young man who was passed up for a promotion and was unsure of how to proceed. "What do you think you should do?" I asked. "Quit," he too quickly replied.

I then told him about one of my first jobs out of college; I was constantly making mistakes because I couldn't handle multiple projects. Instead of facing an upcoming review, I quit. Months later, in a new job, I found myself in a similar situation. Only when I learned how to manage multiple details did my career advance.

My young client identified with my story and soon came up with a plan. He would ask his boss for feedback on his performance and ask what he needed to do in order to get promoted. He would then draft a development plan, review it with his boss, and seek his help. My client's plan worked and within six months he was promoted.

Mirror the speaker physically. We must remember that empathy is a feeling, and as such it transcends words. We can often convey empathy more effectively in silence - with a look or pause - than with words. Physically, we can become more empathetic by mirroring the other person's:

Breathing rate
Voice speed and volume
Gestures and posture (when appropriate)

These tips will help you become a more active and empathetic listener and communicator. Use them to build a "container," or safe place, where people feel free to share who they are without fear of being judged. You'll find that in this "container" real communications take place, and you'll become a better employer, manager, consultant, salesperson - and person.
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