Miscommunication, conflict, assumptions, errors, mistakes, ineffective decisions and a loss of team cohesion: What do all of these organizational issues have in common? All are the result, at least in part, of poor listening.
It's often said that we have two ears but only one mouth. Therefore, we should listen twice as much as we speak. Yet, while effective listening is a highly valued skill in the workplace, many of us find that task difficult to master.
Even good listeners have difficulty remembering what they heard. A study by the University of Minnesota on thousands of students and hundreds of business professionals revealed that people could remember only about 50 percent of what they'd heard just a few minutes after listening to a short lecture. This retention rate dropped to less than 25 percent after about two months.
The ability to listen ranks high on most lists of skills employers desire in employees. In addition, listening is critical when you're learning on the job, which is another skill that employers desire. Listening also comes into play in collaboration, problem-solving and teamwork -- more skills and qualities that rank near the top with employers.
According to listening experts like Lyman Steil of the University of Minnesota, the average adult spends about 70 percent of his or her day in some form of communication. The most oft-cited statistics show that adults spend 9 percent of their communication time writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking and 45 percent listening. Therefore, if you want to improve your interpersonal communication skills, focus on becoming a better listener.
Myriad experts have written volumes on this subject, but we find that keeping the focus on a few key tips gives the best results.
Listen for content.
While words are only part of the message, they are an important part. Albert Mehrabian, in his book Silent Messages, suggested that words provide 7 percent of the meaning we derive from a message. So, use your intellect to listen for facts and ideas as well as the specific words people choose; but focus on the main idea being presented.
You may also want to check your understanding by feeding back the main idea to the speaker and asking if you are correct in what he or she is trying to convey. It is essential to ask questions if you don’t understand the meaning of a word, idiom or acronym. Don’t let a reluctance to show a lack of knowledge get in the way of understanding.
Listen to the intent.
Mehrabian also reported that 38 percent of the meaning of a message comes from tone of voice, inflection, pauses and other vocalizations. Practice using your intuition to hear the underlying messages. If you know the speaker, this will be easier, but you can become more aware by actively listening for the clues of how a message is presented.
Assess the speaker’s nonverbal communication.
Body language, including facial expressions, provides another 55 percent of the verbal message. Watch for signals that tell you what the speaker is really saying. Remember to take in the entire picture instead of focusing on one indicator. For instance, crossed arms don’t always mean that the speaker is defensive, disagrees, is uncertain or insecure. Sometimes this just signals that the person is cold.
Monitor your nonverbal communication.
You must be just as vigilant about the messages you are sending to the speaker while you are listening. Remember, body language can speak very loudly without your saying a word. If the conversation is positive, it's fine to show this.
However, if the topic is more negative, you need to practice your poker face, especially if you tend to be animated and are easy to read. Sending negative signals may shut down the conversation before you are able to understand the other person’s point of view. Doing this will end your chance for resolution.
Listen to the speaker with empathy.
Finally, try to see the situation from your speaker’s point of view and try not to prejudge. One of the best pieces of advice we ever received was to listen to a person’s entire point before interjecting our thoughts into the mix. In addition, try to focus on the speaker and what he or she is saying, instead of mentally composing your rebuttal. If you can do this, your listening prowess will immediately improve.
Becoming a better listener takes time, practice and commitment. We often recommend this exercise as a way to sharpen your skills: First, choose a person with whom you would like to strengthen your relationship. Begin by asking an open-ended question to get the conversation started. Then, listen while you apply the five steps listed above.
Start small. Strive to listen for five minutes during which you are not allowed to interrupt, or give advice or hijack the conversation by telling the speaker your side or story. Keep the conversation going by giving the speaker verbal and nonverbal signals that you are listening, and asking additional questions.
Remember, interpersonal communication is a two-way street. People often need you to listen to them before they will be willing to listen to you. As Stephen Covey said in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you should seek first to understand, then to be understood.