We all understand the importance of listening. But, there's a big difference between hearing someone and actively listening to what they're saying.

We have all been in conversations where the other person is distracted. It feels like you're talking to the wall. For one reason or another, i.e. emails, cell phone, etc., they seem to be on another planet all together. It's frustrating. 

They claim to have "heard you," but would be hard-pressed to repeat back what you said or articulate the meaning behind your message. When they do give you advice, it makes no sense at all. 

In addition to employees feeling discounted in these situations, vital information is being missed, and people are receiving poor direction and feedback as a result. For managers looking to coach their employees, the ability to listen intently is critical

According to a Holmes (a voice of the global PR industry) report, the cost of poor communication has hit an overwhelming $37 billion. Also, 400 surveyed corporations (with 100,000 plus employees in the U.S. and U.K.) estimated that communication barriers cost the average organization $62.4 million per year.

On the other hand, this same report found that companies with leaders who possess effective communication skills produced a 47 percent higher return to shareholders over a five-year period.

When we think about communication, we focus more on the outgoing message. However, communication is a two-way street. You have to listen just as much as you speak. 

If there were an advanced course in listening, then it would be called Active Listening. The main difference being your level of concentration -- and, the responses that come as a result.

Here are a four ways to actively listen: 

1. Be in the moment. 

It's easy to enter conversations, especially of a performance nature, filled with preconceived ideas. An employee is under-performing and you believe it's because they lack prioritization skills. You may be right, but you may also be wrong. 

When you draw conclusions before the conversation begins, you subconsciously set filters and your own bias influences what you hear and don't. 

Instead of only hearing information that validates your preconceptions, be mentally present. Use questions to uncover the root cause and make it a priority to understand what the other person is going through. Try to enter the conversation in an open position and stay present so that you can be of service to your employees.

2. Minimize possible distractions. 

Control what you can control. If the only way to eliminate distractions is to remove yourself from your office, then do it. Emails, texts and watch notifications may happen quickly, but breaking eye contact and interrupting the other person even for a moment, breaks their trust. It sends the signal that there are more important things you would rather be doing than listening to what they are saying -- and they'll shut down as a result. 

Distractions prevent you from being mentally present. By eliminating them, you increase the likelihood of a productive and engaging conversation. If there is no way around it, then let the other person know that you're expecting a call, or that your child's babysitter may need something. Worst case, reschedule the meeting or ask if the other person can come back when you're less distracted. 

3. Be engaged in the conversation. 

Practicing cues that show you're listening is awkward. I'm pretty sure there's an Office episode on that. Rather than forcing uncomfortable eye contact and obsessive nodding, just focus on being mentally present and removing distractions. At that point, the cues will be natural byproducts of your full investment in the conversation. 

When someone sees that you're paying attention through eye contact, nodding or great follow up questions, they'll be more comfortable and forthcoming with information. 

4. Reflect back what you hear. 

You don't want to make assumptions or give misguided feedback. If an employee says something that's unclear, then ask for clarification. The best way is to repeat back what you think they're saying. For example, "what you're saying is..." or "if I heard you correctly..." 

Reflecting back what you hear is a great way to ensure understanding of the message and help align your feedback effectively with the other person's objectives. 

It's counterintuitive, but your ability to be an effective coach and give great advice hinges on your ability to listen. These are four simple tips you can implement now to improve your listening skills. 

Published on: Nov 8, 2018