Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Are you really listening?

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Leaders sometimes think they have to out talk their team members. They’re enthusiastic about their ideas and want to tell all they know. People can no longer just “lead by knowing” in today’s environment. In fact, listening is probably the most essential component of effective communication and leadership is all about communication. Good listeners get to the root of problems more quickly, build trust and teamwork, gain greater insight into the people around them, and absorb important information others miss. The one attribute most often stated about a well-liked boss is, She really listens to me. This is especially important when the employee has a complaint.

Active listening is one of the key behaviors that sets the best leaders apart from the rest. Effective listening is a learned skill; it doesn’t happen automatically for most people. There’s much more to it than just hearing what team members are saying. Effective listening requires your full attention. Leaders who use active listening effectively try to project themselves into others’ minds to feel what they feel. They try to draw out as many ideas as possible and make sure they’re interpreting them correctly. This helps build trust and confidence in the outcome.

Many people tend to assume listening is basically the same as hearing, which is a dangerous misconception that leads to believing that effective listening is instinctive. As a result, supervisors make little effort to learn or develop listening skills and unknowingly neglect a vital communication function. Research shows that people are only about 5 percent efficient as listeners. This lack of effective listening often results in missed opportunities, misunderstanding, conflict, and poor decision-making.

Awareness of different listening behaviors can help one become an effective listener. People listen at different levels of efficiency throughout the day. It depends on the circumstances, their attitudes about the other person, and past experiences. Most often people have difficulty listening effectively when in a conflict situation, when dealing with emotional people, when having criticism directed at them, when being disciplined or when feeling anxious, fearful or angry.

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The different levels of listening are not sharply distinct but rather general categories into which people fall. They may overlap or interchange, depending on the circumstances. A good listener looks for an area of interest in the talker’s message. They view it as an opportunity to gather new and useful information. Effective listeners are aware of their personal biases, their attitudes, and the other person’s feelings. They can see things from the other person’s point of view and inquire about rather than advocate a position.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, poor listeners are tuning out the speaker, daydreaming, forming rebuttals or advice internally, faking attention while thinking about unrelated matters, and are more interested in talking than in listening. This level causes relationship breakdowns, conflicts and poor decision-making because the person is busy finding fault, being judgmental and closed off to what is really being said.

Somewhere in between a good listener and a poor listener is a person who listens to the words and the content of what is being said, but does not fully understand the meaning of the words. There are thousands of words in the English vocabulary; each one has a different meaning for different people for a different purpose. The variety of slang, double meanings, and acronyms used by people just add to the confusion. Words don’t communicate; it’s the meaning and understanding of the words that make communication happen. As a result, what the speaker says is heard but little effort is made to understand the speaker’s intent. This can lead to misunderstanding, incorrect actions, loss of time and a variety of negative feelings.

As a person moves from the least effective to the most effective level of listening, the potential for understanding, retention, and effective communication increases. There are many benefits for supervisors who listen effectively to those they supervise. When employees know they are talking to a good listener instead of a supervisor who is making judgments, they openly suggest ideas and share feelings. When this happens the two of them can work as a team creatively solving the problem instead of placing blame on each other.

As an active listener, the supervisor can set in motion a positive, mutually rewarding process by demonstrating interest in the employee and what he or she is saying. This empathetic listening encourages honesty, mutual respect, understanding and a feeling of security in the employee. Nothing makes people feel more valued, more respected or more cared for than when you really listen to them. Listening encourages employees to feel self-confident and in turn can build their self-esteem and a feeling of being empowered.

Leaders can follow some simple guidelines to promote their active listening skills. It takes awareness, effort, and practice to improve one’s listening comprehension. It’s critical to create the habit of being an active listener on a daily basis so they are internalized as part of the listening behavior. A leader can create a positive atmosphere by using verbal and nonverbal cues to show interest and mutual respect. By actively participating in the conversation with an open-mind, a leader can show genuine interest with verbal cues. Verbal cues like, “right”, “I see”, or “tell me more” encourage the speaker to continue. Nonverbal behavior, for instance, eye contact, an open relaxed posture, a friendly facial expression and a pleasant tone of voice also work well. When the listener interacts and appears alert, attentive, and relaxed the other person feels important and more secure.

A good listener will not interrupt, offer an opinion, advise or interpret. They listen up and get all the facts. To verify the facts and the person’s intent it helps to rephrase and summarize what the other person said. The leader should restate it in his or her words to ensure mutual understanding. Giving a quick summary at key moments lets all parties consolidate the key points being discussed. Summarizing also lets the leader take charge of the direction of the conversation.

Yes, it sounds like hard work, because listening is work. However, active listening will deliver dividends in the form of employees who feel they can communicate with leaders and co-workers. The leader sets the tone for the team. More importantly, listening indicates that the leader cares. When listeners perceive genuine concern it opens the door to communication that is honest and enduring.

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