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Learning to Listen

The key to running your business better may just be as simple as keeping your mouth shut and your ears open.

If you can answer this one single question correctly, you will guarantee your future business success. Ready? No peeking at the answer!

Question: When one of your employees is speaking to you, who's in control of the conversation? As the listener, are you in control? Or is the speaker in control of the conversation?

Answer: If you said you're the one in control of the conversation, you're correct. If you can learn to listen (as if the success of your business depended on it) and you learn to ask the right questions, you're the one in control.

As a business owner, this approach may seem counterintuitive to your instincts. After all, leaders should lead, teach, guide and direct. On closer examination, you'll see that the role of a leader is to consistently collect timely and pertinent information and then use that information to make wise decisions about their business. It may surprise you to know that the highest-ranking official in any company makes fewer moment-by-moment decisions than does the lower-ranking officials in the company. However, the few decisions the high-ranking official does make are pivotal and critical to their organization's success.

There is recent research that proves that a medical doctor only listens to a patient for 22 seconds before interrupting them, but, on average, it takes a patient about 2 minutes to fully explain what's wrong with them. To compare that to the American workplace, the manager of an organization may know how to solve the basic problems the occur in an average day but if they don't carefully listen to their employees, they risk the chance of ill-advising them to create a proper solution to their specific problems and issues.

To improve your listening skills, follow these cues for effective listening:

  • Let your employees know you're listening by saying to them, "Please explain the problem very carefully because I really am listening."
  • As your employee is speaking, nod affirmatively by moving your head slightly.
  • Use verbal prompts to encourage them to continue to speak by using comments like, "Tell me more" or "I need to hear this . . . please continue."
  • If your employee gets off the subject and veers onto other topics, direct them back to their main point by opening your hand and, with five fingertips pointed at them vertically, moving it a few inches sideways and saying, "Let's come back to your point about . . .." which will help them return to their original topic.
  • Allow yourself to blink slightly slower than you normally blink when your employee is speaking to you. By slowing your blink-rate, you're giving them a subconscious indication that you're carefully processing what they're saying instead of thinking what you're going to say next.
  • This final suggestion requires a bit more self-discipline: While you're listening, you must learn to set aside your own judgements, beliefs and attitudes long enough to allow your employee to finish their thoughts without interrupting them.

Information is vital to every business owner. Knowing how to collect that information so you can effectively run your company is equally important. Learning to get other people to give you information that you want and need, however, requires practice. Here are four steps that can help you during a conversation to cherry-pick the information you need:

1. Recognize. Learn to use a poker face when people are speaking to you and then use prompts that encourage them to keep them talking by saying "Uh huh" or "That's interesting."

2. Echo. Repeat back what the other person has said to you to indicate you heard them. For example, "If I heard you correctly, you didn't receive the information on Monday. Is that right?"

3. Validate. Let your employee know you see their side of the issue. For instance, "I can see how the fact that you didn't receive that information on Monday has created this problem."

4. Conclude. Bring together the important points they've made by recapping their comments: "Let me make sure I've heard what you've said. If you had received the information on Monday, you could have completed the report and placed the order by Thursday. Have I understood all the pieces? Or do I need more information?"


Phyllis Davis coaches senior-level executives through her company, Executive Mentoring and Coaching Inc., and has taught corporate etiquette and protocol for the past 28 years. She is the author of the forthcoming book E² The Power of Ethics and Etiquette in American Business, available from Entrepreneur Press in Spring 2003.

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