Listening Skills

4 Tips to Better Listening Skills

Some time ago, a workshop participant said to me, “You probably don’t recall the lunch we had fifteen years ago, but you asked me if I was happy with my career, if I was doing what I really wanted to do. Your comments got me thinking in a way that changed my life.”

Those words made my day. Imagine, I had said something fifteen years ago that made a difference. Someone listened to me. He really listened.

Once again, I was reminded that there is no finer compliment than have someone listen to us. And listening to others is one of the best things we can do for others.

(SPECIAL NOTE: The $600 Early-Early Bird tuition discount for my November 10-11, 2016 Journey-to-the-Extraordinary program coming to Chicago expires tomorrow on August 31st. Yes, you can register later, and yes you can still receive a discount, but this is the LOWEST price that will ever be offered. Click here to register now.)

Listening communicates importance and respect. When you listen to another person, you are saying, “I am listening to you and only you right now. You are getting all of me. No distractions, no mind wandering, no looking at the papers on my desk, no checking my smart phone. You’re getting all of my attention because you’re important to me.”

Unfortunately, poor listening is extremely common. One study asked several thousand workers to identify the most serious fault observed in executives. The most frequently cited fault, mentioned by 68% of the respondents, was the boss’ failure to listen.

The same is true in personal relationships. If you observe a dating couple, you will be struck by their excellent listening skills and apparent caring. The same couple, however, five years into their marriage, may exhibit little in the way of good listening behaviors. One person might be reading the newspaper or watching television while the other one is speaking.

I wonder why. Why do so many people seem to be so bad at listening? And what can be done about it?

Read on. I’ve got some answers for you.

1. Examine the Reasons for Poor Listening

I think there are two reasons.

One is our attitude towards listening. We tend to see listening as a weak and submissive behavior, while talking is an act of power.

Actually, true power lies in listening. When you really listen to someone, he often feels quite good about you. And when it’s your turn to speak, he’s more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Two is our lack of training. Even though an adult spends 45% of her time listening to somebody or something, only 5% of the American workforce has been trained in listening. For most people, their only listening education was the parental injunction to “Shut up and listen.”

There’s no need to despair, however. Listening is a skill. It can be learned and it can be perfected.

All you have to do is take on the ATTITUDE, POSITION, and PRACTICE of a great listener.

2. Take on the Attitude of a Great Listener

It begins with your decision to listen.

In my program, The Power of Partnership: 6 Keys To Better Relationships and Greater Teamwork, I ask the attendees a question. I ask them, “How many of you can turn on your ability to listen if you need to or want to?” All the hands go up. So it’s obvious that good listening starts with your conscious decision to do so.

Do you remember the old adage about having two ears and one mouth? Maybe we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we speak. Whatever the case, it starts with the decision to listen.

I remember one mother who had sternly instructed her son, Josh, to listen to the children’s sermon in church instead of goofing off. It worked.

The assistant pastor asked the kids, “What is gray, has a bushy tail, and gathers nuts in the fall?” Five-year old Josh raised his hand. He said, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

So your attitude of listening starts with a decision to listen, but it’s reinforced by a deliberate decision to listen with an open mind.

That’s exactly what Guillermo Colosia, from Eurochem International, and his sons did when they flew in from Mexico to attend my Journey-to-the-Extraordinary program. As Guillermo wrote:

“Hola, Doctor Zimmerman. Buenos días! As you remember, I attended your Journey-to-the-Extraordinary program with my two teenage sons the last time you offered the program in Chicago. I must confess we think of you very fondly. We took your advice to listen very carefully to what you said and apply what we learned. And the results have been remarkable.”

Of course, it’s not easy to listen with an open mind. In fact, it’s easier to enter a conversation with preconceived ideas about the other person or his topic of discussion. And once you have a preconceived idea in mind, it’s almost impossible to “hear” what the other person is saying. Your preconceptions act as a filter and you only hear what supports your preconceptions.

I see this closed-minded problem everywhere. It’s apparent when managers ask, “What can you expect from the staff?” I see it when the employees say, “You can’t trust what they’re saying at the top.” And I see it when customer service providers talk about their difficult customers, saying, “They’re all alike.”

Communication is a strange thing. A message can travel around the world in a matter of seconds. But it can take years to travel that last inch into your brain if you have preconceived ideas standing in the way.

3. Take on the Position of a Great Listener.

Yes, position. You may have never heard this before, but the way you position your body has a huge impact on the quality of your listening.

In order to become a great listener, you need to remove physical barriers.

When there are some “things” between you and the other person, listening can become more difficult. If you’re on a job site, for example, and there’s a piece of equipment between you and the other person, it will be harder to hear as well as pay attention.

Or if there’s a desk between you and somebody else, the desk may imply that one person is “above” the other, and that kind of discomfort will not help the listening process. One researcher found that only 11% of patients are at ease when the doctor sits behind a desk, but 55% of the patients are at ease when the desk is removed.

The physical barrier might be your hearing. If you can’t easily and clearly hear what is being said, all the listening skills in the world won’t do you much good. If you’ve got a hearing problem and something can be done about it, do it. It’s something that everyone in your life will appreciate.

Casey Stengel had to learn that. As the grand old man of baseball, he turned up in Florida one winter wearing a brand new hearing aid. When someone asked him about it, he replied it was the best hearing aid on the market and it cost him $1,500.

“My,” said the questioner. “That must be a good one. What kind is it?”

“Half past four,” replied Casey, glancing at his watch.

Once you’ve corrected any potential hearing problems, make a habit of leaning forward.

The more you physically position yourself to listen, the more you will listen. In effect, your body is saying, “I’m ready to listen. So go ahead. Give it to me.”

Besides that, when you lean towards the speaker, you demonstrate your commitment to the communication process. You demonstrate your involvement. And when you appear as if you want to catch every single word the speaker is saying, you encourage the speaker.

You must also look at the speaker.

If you doubt the importance of eye contact, think of someone who doesn’t look at you when you’re speaking. Remember how it feels. Not very good. You intuitively know that eye contact is critical, so use it. Anybody worth listening to is worth looking at.

Then put aside distractions.

In other words, put aside everything else that is not related to the listening process. Don’t try to write a memo at the same time you’re listening to your colleague. Don’t try to catch up on your email at the same time your spouse is talking to you. Stop tapping your fingers or jiggling your foot. All those things suggest you have more important things to do than listen to the other person.

With those four little behaviors, you’re in a POSITION to listen. You’re ready to receive information.

How you deal with that information is the PRACTICE of listening. I’ll talk about that in a later Tuesday Tip. But I’ll give one practice for starters that will dramatically improve the quality of your listening.

4. Take on the Practice of a Great Listener … Take Time to Review What You Heard

It’s so simple but it’s so seldom done. After all, we’re busy and we’re eager to move on to the next thing.

But if you will take a few moments to review what you heard, your memory of those points will increase dramatically. I know. I do it all the time.

Indeed, people will often comment on how it is I seem to remember everything. They wonder if I just lucked out and got a better brain or if I have some memory secret I’m not telling them.

Actually, all I do is review what I heard. When I leave a meeting, I’ll take a few seconds to review the key points at that meeting. When I finish listening to a sermon in church, I’ll remind myself of what was the most important thing I heard, and then ask myself what I’m going to do about it.

That’s exactly what Guillermo Colosia and his sons did with the material they learned at my Journey-to-the-Extraordinary program. They reviewed what they heard.

As Guillermo says,

“We have been listening an hour a day to your CDs in our car, including your attitude CD, which by the way is outstanding! We’re reading your book, PIVOT: How One Turn in Attitude Can Lead to Success, which is one of the best books we’ve ever read. We went through the Journey 3-ring binder again and we are doing the exercises you kindly mention in your reinforcements. I have to say our results have been outstanding!”

And when you listen to really good stuff, you can’t help but have extra benefits as well. It can change every part of your life for the better.

In Guillermo’s case, he went on to say,

“I now wake up at 5:00 a.m., meditate for 3 minutes, read for an hour, shower, and start doing the affirmations I learned at your Journey. When I travel at work, I listen to motivational recordings. I write out my goals twice a day and I completed the ‘Goal Binder’ exercise you taught at the Journey, with photographs and all. At night, I exercise.”

Wow! And wow again. It’s the power of listening at work.

Final Thought: “We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.” – Edward Bolles

journey listening

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