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 willguarantee your future business success. Ready? No peeking at theanswer!

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

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

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

There is recent research that proves that a medical doctor onlylistens to a patient for 22 seconds before interrupting them, but,on average, it takes a patient about 2 minutes to fully explainwhat's wrong with them. To compare that to the Americanworkplace, the manager of an organization may know how to solve thebasic problems the occur in an average day but if they don'tcarefully listen to their employees, they risk the chance ofill-advising them to create a proper solution to their specificproblems and issues.

To improve your listening skills, follow these cues foreffective listening:

  • Let your employees know you're listening by saying to them,"Please explain the problem very carefully because I really amlistening."
  • As your employee is speaking, nod affirmatively by moving yourhead slightly.
  • Use verbal prompts to encourage them to continue to speak byusing comments like, "Tell me more" or "I need tohear this . . . please continue."
  • If your employee gets off the subject and veers onto othertopics, direct them back to their main point by opening your handand, with five fingertips pointed at them vertically, moving it afew inches sideways and saying, "Let's come back to yourpoint about . . .." which will help them return to theiroriginal topic.
  • Allow yourself to blink slightly slower than you normally blinkwhen your employee is speaking to you. By slowing your blink-rate,you're giving them a subconscious indication that you'recarefully processing what they're saying instead of thinkingwhat 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 ownjudgements, beliefs and attitudes long enough to allow youremployee to finish their thoughts without interrupting them.

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

1. Recognize. Learn to use apoker face when people are speaking to you and then use promptsthat encourage them to keep them talking by saying "Uhhuh" or "That's interesting."

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

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

4. Conclude. Bring together the important pointsthey've made by recapping their comments: "Let me makesure I've heard what you've said. If you had received theinformation on Monday, you could have completed the report andplaced the order by Thursday. Have I understood all the pieces? Ordo I need more information?"

Phyllis Daviscoaches senior-level executives through her company, Executive Mentoring andCoaching Inc., and has taught corporate etiquette and protocolfor the past 28 years. She is the author of the forthcomingbook E² The Power of Ethics and Etiquette in AmericanBusiness, available from Entrepreneur Press in Spring2003.

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