By Barbara Mitchell
Q: My manager tells me I need to be a better listener. What can I do to improve my listening skills?
A: Listening is probably the most misunderstood communication process we use, and we can all stand to improve our skills. It takes some work, focus, and patience, but it can be done.
Let’s start with what listening is not. It’s not waiting for your turn to talk when the other person is speaking. If that’s your approach to listening, you probably aren’t hearing what the other person is saying because you’re too focused on preparing your response.
A good listener makes a deliberate effort to understand the other person’s message, listens to learn, is interested in what the speaker is saying, and lets the speaker know they’re listening.
If you’re serious about being a better listener, you should practice what’s called “active listening,” a powerful way to capture the entire message a speaker is attempting to convey. Here’s how it works.
While the speaker is talking, the active listener encourages the speaker to share through gestures and facial expressions like nodding, maintaining eye contact, raising an eyebrow, or smiling. These cues let the speaker know you hear him or her and want to know more. However, you have to mean it—if you aren’t sincere, the speaker will probably not want to continue to talk to you.
A good listener makes a deliberate effort to understand the other person’s message, listens to learn, and lets the speaker know they’re listening.
Another active-listening technique is to paraphrase what you heard the speaker say. For example, you could say, “I heard you say that my department needs to respond more positively to requests from your staff.” Then, if that’s not what the speaker intended, he or she can clarify but will know you were listening.
As you work to improve your listening skills, consider what gets in your way. Maybe it’s that you’re distracted by external noise or other people. If so, when you find yourself in that situation, ask the speaker if you can move to a quieter location. Maybe the timing is bad—you’re on a tight deadline and can’t focus. Ask if you can postpone the discussion until you can give it your full attention. Maybe the speaker uses words or phrases you don’t understand. In that case, ask for clarification.
As John Marshall, an early chief justice of the Supreme Court, said, “To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”
Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].