Are you a poor listener?

Let's hope not, but you'd be the exception, not the rule. Listening well leads to better relationships with employees, vendors, strategic partners, and clients. And as everyone knows by now, good or bad relationships have a direct impact on an organization's bottom line.

Why it's worthwhile to improve your listening skills

Surveys show that workplace miscommunication has high costs, including lowered productivity, increased turnover, and higher stress. Most people want to be heard but rarely make the effort to listen to others. Effective, thoughtful listening can help avoid troubled communications that lead to such unwanted outcomes as:

  • Lawsuits and claims: One study found that poor physician/patient communication -- such as miscommunication or the patient not feeling heard by the physician -- showed up frequently in the details of malpractice suits. Another study links increased harassment claims with inappropriate workplace communication.
  • Low morale: In a time when retaining and recruiting top-notch talent is tough, alienating your employees can be very costly. Studies show that employees choosing to leave a company often include the poor interpersonal skills of a supervisor and/or coworkers among chief complaints.
  • Lost respect: A key trait of influential people is facility with listening and understanding another's perspective. Interpersonal skills are now high on the list of the abilities that make an individual successful in the workplace.
  • Misunderstandings: These can turn a discussion into a conflict, or sour a valued relationship. Other repercussions include a high percentage of time lost to personality squabbles, according to several recent studies.
  • Reduction of fresh ideas: If people don't think their ideas are heard or accepted, they'll stop presenting them, reducing your organization's cache of knowledge and innovative ideas. Needless to say, this hurts the bottom line in today's knowledge society.
  • Poor customer service: Not listening to and understanding your customers' needs results in dissatisfied customers who gladly turn to a competitor to fulfill their next need.

How to improve your listening skills and help reduce misunderstandings:

    Be present
    • Resist distractions (noises, interruptions, fidgeting, prejudices, etc.).
    • Don't do five things at once. Do one: listen to the person with whom you're speaking.
    • Demonstrate your full attention by leaning forward slightly, focusing your eyes on the speaker's face, and trying not to fidget or glance away too frequently.
    • Follow the golden rule. Take a moment to realize that every person is important and deserves your attention. How does it feel to talk with someone who doesn't seem to be listening, or be ignored or treated disrespectfully?
    • Keep an open mind and be flexible to others' ideas; release your need to be right, if only temporarily. Our need to be right can cause us to be contentious, or even inflammatory.
    • Don't tune out because you disagree. You just have to listen and understand, not agree.
    • Don't jump to conclusions before you've heard the whole message.
    • If you find yourself reacting to what another person says, your body language will communicate your reaction. Try saying, "You can probably see I'm reacting a bit, but it's important to me to understand your point of view. Please tell me more about ?"
    • Ensure your understanding by saying something like, "I want to make sure I understood you correctly. You're saying ?" or "So your concern (or idea) is ?"

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.