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Home  > Article

Listen Up!

By Nancy R. Mitchell, The Etiquette Advocate

One of the most powerful tools available to assist you in business is as obvious as the nose on your face?make that the ears on your head.

That tool is your listening skills.  Not only is listening a basic element of effective communication, but it is an integral part of building strong relationships. And, it is the cornerstone of your people skills, the skills that account for 85% of your success in business.

TRUE/FALSE:  Listening is one of the easiest tasks we face in the course of a business day. After all, we all know how to listen, right? If you answered TRUE to this statement, return to square one in the game called Business Smarts.  

Now hear this. Effective listening takes work. It is not a passive state of suspension, but rather an active process that involves your mind and body. By listening in a manner that indicates your desire to hear and understand, you show respect for a speaker and your interest in the topic or information that is being conveyed. And, here's the bonus card in the game--when you listen to others, they tend to return the favor. In most cases, when you are perceived as a considerate and thoughtful listener, you will be given an opportunity to get your message across.

So, what does it take to be a good listener? To begin, it takes your undivided attention. Studies have shown that on average, we can speak about 100-150 words per minute, and we are capable of processing up to 300-400 words per minute. So where is your mind going with all that extra time? Too often, it is formulating your response to the comments being made; following your gaze over the speaker's shoulder; mentally checking items off your To Do list; debating if you should answer your cell phone; or strategizing how not to be late to pick up your dry cleaning (or was it the kids?). In other words, your mind is wandering. And, when your mind is wandering, you're not listening in the active sense of the word.

We have been led to believe that multi-tasking is a virtue, but this is not the case when it comes to listening. The ramifications of allowing distractions to carry your attention away from a face-to-face conversation, meeting or telephone call are numerous, and may include misunderstanding what is being said; over- or under-reacting; missing an opportunity to build or strengthen a business relationship, and failing to show respect for a speaker. And, you may be surprised to learn that poor listening skills are one of the most-often mentioned shortcomings in employee evaluations and are near the top of the list of complaints that employees have about their supervisors. 

Here are some guidelines to help you improve your listening skills:

  1. Make and maintain eye contact -- In a North American business context, the norm is to maintain eye contact about 50-60% of the time you are listening to others (less with Asian clients or guests, and more with those from Latin America or the Middle East.). When you glance away, look at a speaker's ear, nose, chin--never over the shoulder or below the neck.
  2. Respond non-verbally -- Show with your body language that you are paying attention and hearing what is being said. Maintain an open posture (line your shoulders up with the speaker's shoulders), lean in slightly, nod or shake your head, and respond with appropriate facial expressions.
  3. Respond verbally -- Repeat words or phrases; restate some of the information you have heard; ask follow-up questions; or make comments using information you have heard. This helps the speaker to know that not only are you listening, but that you understand what is being said.
  4. Interpret attitude and motives -- In order to fully understand what is being said, try to analyze the context of a conversation, not just the words.
  5. Focus -- Don't let your mind wander, and don't spend too much time thinking about how you plan to respond. Listening is not waiting for someone else to finish so that you may speak; it is an active process of hearing and digesting what is being said. Ignore or minimize distractions.
  6. Process information that you hear, both while the speaker is speaking and after you have parted. In a subsequent meeting with the speaker, refer to your last conversation to indicate that you heard and remember what was said.
  7. Don't interrupt, and don't finish someone's sentences. It's rude.
  8. Ignore cell phones, BlackBerrys and pagers when speaking with others, and no text messaging in meetings! In meetings, show that you are listening to speakers by taking notes and participating in a discussion.
  9. When dealing with a difficult person, use all of the active listening skills above, and don't become defensive. Remember, in most cases, the tirade or complaint is not directed at you personally.
  10. Learn to end a conversation graciously and diplomatically when you need to do so.

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