"Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking."
--Bernard M. Baruch

Listening is an art. Every day companies grapple with avoidable problems, bosses miss out on great ideas, and organizations repeat the same mistakes--all because of the failure to listen.

This is interesting, because listening is a skill we start learning early. It's how we pick up language--listen and repeat. So where does it all go wrong?

Maybe it's differences in communication style. Or a lack of focus. Or the wrong priorities.

But whether it's paying attention during a brainstorm or trying to help someone through a difficult problem, honing the ability to listen can make a world of difference.

So how do you become a better listener? Good listeners make sure to do (or not do) the following:

1. Don't interrupt.

Encourage your counterpart to speak freely about what's on their mind. If it involves some type of conflict, make sure to listen to their side without bias or prejudice.

This isn't always easy, especially when dealing with a disgruntled or emotional person. They might even lash out against you: 'You have no idea what it's like!' 'You're killing us with these requests!'

Resist the urge to fight back. Remember: The minute they stop talking is the minute you stop learning. And that limits the information you have to start making things better.

Exception: If you think of an important question that can't wait, ask it. Otherwise, write it down and ask when the person finishes speaking. (You can also jot down other important notes that you don't want to forget.)

2. Ask discerning questions.

Observe the person's body language and demeanor. Pay attention to significant pauses or inflections of voice. Are they telling the whole story, or are they leaving out significant details?

Maybe they're holding back because they're intimidated, or out of fear of getting another colleague in trouble, or a host of other possibilities. Don't just collect facts; get to the root of the issue. (When did you start feeling that way? Does anyone else feel like this?) Dig deeper.

3. Focus your attention.

Ever try and speak to someone who is obviously distracted? How did it make you feel?

I remember a coworker I had once who had the nasty habit of looking around when I was trying to tell him something. We talked about it, but he never really fixed it--until he got married. (Guess she didn't like it either.)

Of course, when your next meeting is in half an hour and you've got three phone calls to make before then, this can be a challenge. If you know you're distracted, explain this and ask if you can schedule a time when the person can have your full attention. When that time comes, make sure to hold your calls, and silence your computer and mobile phone.

4. Forget the mechanics.

Some try to train themselves to give feedback by nodding their head in agreement. But this can backfire if you take it too far, making the other person feel rushed. Concentrate simply on understanding, and your sincerity should come through naturally.

5. Don't agree just to make them feel better.

Maybe the other person is actually wrong about this issue. If you're not careful, you might say something like 'Right, right' or 'Yeah, that's true', out of habit--validating points that you don't agree with.

Instead, offer feedback like: 'I see.' Or, 'I can understand why you might feel that way.' This confirms that you're listening, without taking sides.

6. Resist the urge to give a solution right away.

As a consultant (and a husband), I know firsthand how challenging this one can be.

But it can definitely send the wrong message, such as: 'This problem is easy to solve; just do this.' The other person will likely feel that you've oversimplified things. You've just destroyed all the hard work you put into listening.

If you feel strongly that you have a solution, and that it could genuinely help, try saying something like this: "I dealt with something similar once. (Explain.) This is what I did--it may or may not be helpful in these circumstances, but it could be a start." Follow up with: "Let me give it some more thought and see if there's anything else we can do."

But be advised, sometimes a solution isn't even wanted--at least not at the moment. It's all about the person onboarding you to their experience, in the hope of achieving some empathy.

7. Be realistic.

Some problems require help from a specialist, or a specific department--quickly. If so, do what you can to get the person in touch with the help they need.

Good listening brings positive effects for everyone:

The one speaking has the chance to share his (or her) concerns, and gets the feeling that you're interested.

You improve the relationship with your team, and stay in touch with the day-to-day issues of your company and employees. And when you do give advice, it carries more weight--because it's based on reality.

So, don't let your next opportunity go to waste: Listen up!

And see how much you can learn today.

Published on: Nov 12, 2014
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