Talking is sharing, but listening is caring.
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.
Listening communicates importance and respect. When you attend 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 peeking at the TV over your shoulder. 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 response, 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 attending 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?
I think one of the reasons for poor listening is our negative attitude towards it. 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.
One of the other reasons for poor listening 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 POSITION of a good listener and develop the PRACTICE of a good listener.
POSITION refers to those things you do in preparation for listening. It’s getting yourself ready to hear what is about to be said. It involves six behaviors.
First, DECIDE TO LISTEN.
In my communication program, “The Relationship Recipe: Rapport, Respect, and Recognition,” 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, 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.”
Second, COME WITH AN OPEN MIND.
It’s so easy 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. I see it when mangers 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.
Third, REMOVE PHYSICAL BARRIERS.
When there’s 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 $1500.
“My,” said the questioner. “That must be a good one. What kind is it?”
“Half past four,” replied Casey, glancing at his watch.
Fourth, LEAN 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 don’t want to miss a single word that the speaker is saying, you encourage the speaker.
Fifth, 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.
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 read the newspaper 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 six things, 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 next week.
Action: List the six POSITIONS of a good listener. Rank them from 1 to 6, number 1 being the item you are “best” at and number 6 the one you “most need to improve.”
Then consciously focus on your number 6 item every time you’re in a listening situation this week. Focus on doing it right, and you will get better.