Listen very carefully…

Most of a manager’s work time is spent in communication activity, yet most
managers have never received any training in this skill. Sandra Collins looks
at ways to help you be a better listener

Listening is more than just hearing. At any given moment, we are bombarded
with numerous sounds – often too many to pay attention to and some that we
would just as soon ignore. Thus, the first step in listening is selecting the
sounds we want to pay attention to. We then interpret those sounds and assign
meaning to them. Finally, the listening process then requires that we respond
to what we’ve heard and remember it.

When we think about being a good listener, we usually refer to listening to
a spoken message. The benefits of listening well are myriad: you often learn
more, avoid misunderstandings, and make better decisions. You can better
understand a problem and are more effective at resolving conflict than poor
listeners. Good listeners have the edge at building relationships.

Good listeners enjoy stronger relationships because of the effect that being
listened to has on others. The Buddha offered this wisdom: "At the bottom
of things, most people want to be understood and appreciated." People who
are listened to feel affirmed – like they matter and deserve attention. They
experience reduced stress, less frustration, more trust, and more satisfaction.
In short, when we listen to others, we communicate our appreciation of them. At
an organisational level, effective listening means higher levels of employee
satisfaction and increased loyalty and trust. For instance, the US Department
of Labor reports that 46 per cent of people who quit their jobs in the US do so
because they feel unappreciated.

Mirroring the benefits of listening well are the costs associated with
listening poorly. Simple misunderstandings frequently result from ineffective
listening. Poor listeners often miss opportunities by failing to pay attention
when the opportunities are presented. Not listening well in the workplace can
lead to mistakes that cause productivity losses, and problems with both
internal and external relationships.

Two primary barriers to effective listening are distraction and disinterest.
In today’s fast-paced work environment, listeners are distracted – maybe
because they are trying to multitask. However, it is difficult to truly
concentrate on two things at once. If you are listening to someone on the phone
while reading your e-mail, you probably aren’t being truly effective at either

Straightening your desk, or sorting your post may be almost automatic
behaviours that don’t require much mental effort and could be easily performed
while listening. But it’s not a good way to listen on an interpersonal level.
The problem is the effect on the speaker. Even if the listener catches every
word the speaker says, the speaker won’t feel that the listener finds him/her
interesting or important enough to deserve undivided attention. Even over the
phone, multitasking can affect a satisfactory interaction – background noises
of paper shuffling or keystroking can communicate that the listener is not
paying complete attention to the conversation

Disinterest, on the other hand, manifests itself in several different ways:
lack of eye contact or leaning away from a speaker convey a lack of interest in
what is being said as well in as the person saying it. Some listeners are more
interested in directing an interaction to what they want to say than attending
to what is being said. Even listeners who are interested in the speaker’s
subject matter may be focused on what they will say next. These people show
their impatience non-verbally or repeatedly interrupt us as we speak.

At times when listeners want to refocus an interaction on themselves, they
do so by topping the speaker’s story. If you talk about saving your department
$5,000, this person will have saved his department $7,000; if you share a
procedural change that would make a process more efficient, he will have
thought of it years ago. This sort or responding makes speakers feel like they
should just be quiet.

Tangential response

Good listening requires feedback that furthers the interaction. A tangential
response – which is related to, but is definitely off the topic – clearly
communicates that listeners have not been really trying to relate to the
speaker. They may appear to be paying attention, but they are not really
involved in what is being said. A tangential response is another way of
wresting control of the conversation’s direction to one that better suits the
listener. Sometimes a response is not even tangentially related to what has
been said. You may be talking about a meeting you just attended and the
listener responds with a comment about where to go for lunch. A completely
unrelated response tells the speaker that the subject matter is not worthwhile
and redirects the interaction rather than furthering it.

It is possible to respond in a relevant way, but still shut down an
interaction. Responses that are on topic, but don’t meet speakers’ needs can be
frustrating and lead them to exit an interaction. Differences in communication
style, personality, perceptions of a situation, and even gender can unwittingly
lead to this type of response. For example, women often complain that when they
talk to a man about a problem, the man responds to them by offering solutions.
When men hear this complaint, they are often surprised and a little bewildered.
What they don’t know is that women often seek simply an ear and some empathy.
Men frequently misinterpret the purpose for the woman’s disclosure and their
well-intentioned feedback terminates the interaction, leaving both parties

So what causes poor listening habits? Broadly, ability and motivation.
Ability barriers include things that make it difficult for the listener to hear
the speaker, like a noisy room or a cell phone with poor reception. Ability
barriers can also refer to things that make understanding a speaker difficult,
such as a language barrier, a lack of familiarity with a subject, or fatigue.
In addition, ability barriers include a lack of basic skills associated with
listening. For example, a person with poor social skills may exhibit
inappropriate non-verbal behaviours while listening because they don’t know any

Overcoming barriers

Overcoming ability barriers requires recognising and addressing the
problem’s source. That could be as easy as moving to a quiet location or using
a different phone. Preparing for an interaction is important too, by
familiarising yourself with a topic and acquiring any background knowledge that
will make it easier to follow a speaker. Reading over the agenda before a
presentation or learning a little about a person before a meeting provides
listeners with a framework for understanding what is said.

Overcoming motivation barriers can be more difficult. When something is exciting
to us, we are naturally motivated to listen attentively. The problem, or
course, is that we must all listen to information that may be important, but
not all that exciting or interesting.

How then do we motivate ourselves to listen to information that we do not
find naturally engaging? First, know yourself. Know what things you find
difficult to listen to. Maybe you tend to tune out very technical information,
or perhaps you avoid listening to really emotional speakers. Some people don’t
like to hear about politics or religion and tune out when they hear certain
trigger words like ‘liberal’ or ‘sin’. Recognise how your beliefs, attitudes,
and values affect your listening. It can be difficult to listen to something
that we strongly disagree with, but remember that listening well does not mean
that you agree with what is being said. Also, to be able to listen well to
information you have no natural interest in, make it more important to you.
People listen most effectively to information that is about them in some way.

Have a listening goal. If you establish a listening goal for yourself before
an interaction, you give yourself added motivation to listen in an effective
way. We often establish goals for other communication activities. With
speaking, for example, we may think to ourselves before an interaction that we
are going to inform people, persuade them, reward them, or work something out
with them. We think of the best way to say what we want to say in order to get
the result we want. But most of us rarely have listening goals in mind when we
enter an interaction.

Listening goals take many forms and some are more appropriate than others in
different situations. You can have the goal of listening to learn, listening to
decide, listening to build relationships, listening to support another person,
or listening to resolve a conflict, among others. How you listen and how you
respond will be shaped by your listening goal. For example, if you have a goal
of listening to learn, you may ask a lot of clarifying questions, you may take
notes, and you may repeat back what you’ve heard as closely as possible to be
sure you heard it correctly. This type of listening and responding would be
inappropriate if your goal is listening to support another person. In that
case, you may ask questions that encourage the person to disclose more, but you
would definitely not take notes, and you may repeat back your interpretation of
the other person is feeling, rather than parrot back what was said.

An Argentine proverb says: "Who speaks, sows; who listens, reaps."
Listening is something that we all do, and do well at times, but could
certainly do better.

The author

Sandra Collins has a doctorate in
social psychology and is a professor of management in the Mendoza College of
Business at the University of Notre Dame.

Recommended reading

Listening: The Forgotten Skill, by
Madelyn Burley-Allen. Published by John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1995

The Zen of Listening, by Rebecca Z Shafir. Published by
QuestBook, Wheaton Illinios, US, 2000

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