The digital era is causing a slow degeneration in our ability to verbally communicate. Specifically, the part of verbal communication that doesn't require words -- active listening.

This affects all generations, not just Millennials. As a Gen-Xer myself, I fully admit that being connected 24/7 to mobile apps, texting, email, and social media has become a crutch. The speed of communicating in 140 characters or less is certainly convenient, but I need to guard against diminishing my own ability to verbally engage and listen to colleagues and clients when necessary.

This means courageously stepping out from behind our digital comfort zones to deal directly with the unpredictability of human emotions. This is what generations past used to do, and it's often the quickest route in cutting through conflict or setting clear expectations with intention, if you're a leader.

There are certain situations (business or personal) that call for us to have human-to-human interactions, to speak and listen authentically and communicate that which could otherwise get lost or not be conveyed through digital communication.

The Foundation for Building Strong Relationships

I believe strong active listening skills in conversation is the foundation for superb human communication. With technology, we are becoming less opportunistic in developing our listening skills, and less socially aware of their effect on business as a competitive advantage.

Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind make the need for good listening evident in their research published in the book Talk, Inc.

They found that the most effective leaders in more than 100 companies employ the principles of "organizational conversation." The secret? Operate your business as if it were two people having a conversation. Most big companies don't.

In their Harvard Business Review article "Leadership Is a Conversation," Groysberg and Slind state:

Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously know when to stop talking and start listening. Few behaviors enhance conversational intimacy as much as attending to what people say. True attentiveness signals respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, and even a degree of humility.

An informal poll I recently conducted on LinkedIn revealed the need for more active listening in the workplace. I set out to find what managers are doing wrong by asking the question "What is the one mistake leaders make more frequently than others?"

I received hundreds of responses, which I ranked and published as the "8 Mistakes Managers Make, According to Their Employees." Mistake No. 3 is plain and simple -- they don't listen. The lack of two-way communication -- sending without receiving -- was a clear regret for many.

Improving Your Active Listening Skills

Active listening is one of the least taught skills in leadership, yet it's the most utilized. As studies point out, we spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication, and of that time, 45 percent is spent listening.

And while many leaders assume they're good listeners, studies confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners. When you talk to your boss, co-workers, or customers for 10 minutes, studies say we pay attention to less than half of the conversation. Within 48 hours, whatever information we've retained decreases to 25 percent. In other words, we often comprehend and retain only one fourth of what we hear.

As a leader, building up your active listening skills is crucial for solving problems, building trust, and winning the hearts and minds of people. Here are eight things you can do to develop your active listening skills.

1. Stop talking.

In other words, stop what you're doing and eliminate your distractions in the moment. Then give the speaker your full attention. What you're communicating nonverbally is "I am interested in what you have to say."

2. Put the other person at ease.

You do that by first putting yourself at ease. Get relaxed; use door openers like "What's up? Anything I can help you with?" Have open body language and posture, don't rush the conversation, and give the speaker time to think and process his or her thoughts.

3. Don't interrupt, period.

This is especially true for a person who is upset. Allow for ventilation to occur. Park your thoughts in the moment and your need for a rebuttal. Your time will come to reflect back what you heard or state your point. But for now, while the speaker is stating his or her case, your MO is to be patient and continue your open body posture and eye contact to show understanding.

4. Show empathy.

Make a statement of regret and be genuine about it. Ask the person for his or her help. "I'd like to understand your problem. Will you help me?" This is about stepping into the other person's shoes to increase your understanding.

5. Paraphrase.

Try to summarize and reflect back what you've heard and restate it to the person to his or her liking. Use "what I hear you saying is ... " to clarify being on the same page. This often helps defuse tension and shows employees that you're genuinely trying to understand their situation.

6. Ask open-ended questions.

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to engage people in a conversation, requiring full answers using the speaker's own knowledge or feelings. Use questions for clarification and understanding, such as "What do you suggest we do?"

7. Use silence.

By practicing silence, you allow yourself to be comfortable with the unknown, stay in the background and in the moment, and let discomfort, healthy conflict, joy, or fear emerge. Don't mistake silence for tension. If any tension exists, time perceptions get terribly distorted. Use silence to help dialogue naturally flow and both parties to process things through without pressure.

8. Allow reflection.

You may find that in certain listening scenarios, your best role is to just act as a sounding board for your employees, allowing them to release pressure.

Published on: May 3, 2017
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