Are you a good listener? Most people believe that they are. And yet, listening skills are harder and harder to maintain in this era of fast-moving business, constant distractions, and ever-shorter attention spans. The result is that most of us are not as good at listening as we may think.
That's not good, according to Ed Hess, professor at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business and author of the new book Learn or Die. Just as our listening skills are getting more challenged, they're also growing more essential to our success, he argues. "It used to be that the smartest guy in the room was the one who was constantly talking," he says. "Now, the smartest guy or gal in the room is the one who asks the right questions and then truly listens to what others have to say."
He believes listening is the most important 21st-century business skill. Why? Because it's necessary for critical thinking, innovation, collaboration, and real-time problem solving, all strengths of today's top business leaders. And as technology gives everyone quick access to infinite knowledge and machines take over many tasks that once required years of experience, the ability to keep learning and adapting will make the difference between success and failure.
Unfortunately, Hess says, in our fast-paced time, most of us have fallen into some bad mental habits that impede our ability to listen effectively. See if any or maybe all of these sound as familiar to you as they did to me:
1. Planning your response while the other person is talking.
This is just plain human nature. We don't want to appear dumb, so we try to be ready with an intelligent response the moment other people finish what they have to say. The problem is that, as we now know, the human brain can't really multitask. So while your brain is thinking up your answer, it's letting whatever's being said slip by.
The best way to fight this tendency is to slow yourself down, Hess says. Ideally, do this before the conversation even starts. "Put yourself in a listening frame of mind with calmed emotions and a quiet ego," he advises. "Take some deep breaths and say to yourself: 'Listening is not about me. Don't rush to conclusions. Seek to understand.'"
The best way to improve your listening is to be in the moment with the other speaker--let go of all plans for what you'll say next, look the speaker in the eye, and focus completely on what he or she is saying. Even if there's a moment's silence while you compose your thoughts, the other speaker will notice and appreciate your focus, and it will make your whole interaction more effective.
2. Assuming you know what the other person is about to say.
Finishing another person's sentence out loud is rude and we usually don't do it. But most of us are guilty of finishing that sentence inside our heads. We think, "Oh yeah, I've heard that many times, I know what you're about to say."
And we may be right. People are repetitive by nature so there's a good chance we do know what's about to be said. But there are subtle differences and underlying messages that we miss when we mentally check out on something we think we already know. Also, we may be wrong. The other speaker may be about to say something completely new that we will miss out on because we've stopped listening.
The best way to fight this tendency, Hess says, is to be aware of your own assumptions. Test those assumptions by asking questions that will dig deeper into the question. Your questions may make the speaker stop and think more deeply as well.
Most of us have enough common courtesy not to start speaking when someone else is in the middle of a sentence. But interruptions can also be non-verbal. Hess recalls that in school, he would wave his hand vigorously while his teacher was still talking. He would do this for so long that eventually she would interrupt herself and call on him. That way, he could be the first to give the right answer, much like someone hitting the button first on Jeopardy! He wanted everyone to know how smart he was.
Hess contends that when we interrupt others, seeming smart is usually the motivation. "Either we're interrupting to correct the speaker or to get to a key point before the speaker does," he says. He adds that it was an effort for him to curb his own interrupting habit. "I learned that others would not think less of me if I listened until they were through talking and reflected on what they said before responding." On the contrary, other people felt they had his respect. "That made my meetings more productive and my relationships stronger," he says.
4. Letting your mind wander to something that seems more important.
In today's busy world, it's highly tempting to zone out and focus on more urgent matters if someone isn't holding your attention. And if you've never stolen a sneak peek at your email while someone was droning on, well, you're made of sterner stuff than I am. But this is a bad, bad habit. You're in the conversation for a reason which means you should be focused on the conversation so that whatever you want to accomplish actually happens. And if a conversation truly is a waste of your time, then you should be looking for a polite way to get out of it.
5. Interpreting the speaker's message to match your own views.
Unfortunately, this too is human nature. Faced with the massive jumble of information that comes at us every day, we pay attention to that which supports our existing beliefs and tend to ignore the rest. The fragmented nature of our public conversation just makes things worse: If you're a liberal who watches MSNBC or a conservative who watches Fox, you're never in danger of having your beliefs challenged.
Don't go into your conversations this way. Try to keep an open mind about everything you hear so that you can truly absorb what the other person is telling you, rather than seeing it through the lens of your existing assumptions. Don't worry--if you temporarily set aside your understanding and expertise about the subject, you can pick them up again when you need them to analyze what you've heard or render your own opinion.
6. Sharing your own experience rather than asking about the speaker's experience.
It's a common impulse--someone tells you about a car accident and your first instinct is to describe one of your own. And while there's certainly value in letting people know they aren't alone, or that you understand what they're going through, the truth is that every experience is different. The other person will want to know that you've heard and understood, and care about their experience.
"This is another situation where asking questions will serve you much better than talking over someone or trying to interject your way into the conversation," Hess says. So make sure you ask more than you tell.
7. Offering advice before being asked.
Everyone has done this at one time or another but it is usually a bad idea. "Maybe you think that a colleague or friend is sharing a story with you precisely because they want your advice," says Hess. "Well, that might be the case, but chances are what they need more is for someone to hear them out, to truly listen to what they have to say. Never, ever offer advice before being asked."
8. Getting defensive about negative feedback.
This is a particularly tough habit to break. When faced with negative comments about ourselves or our work, our instinctive response is to deny, defend, or deflect in order to protect our egos, Hess says. Overcoming that automatic response can be a powerful tool, though. That's because genuinely thoughtful negative feedback is a rare commodity. "Rather than getting the kind of specific, constructive feedback that can help us improve our skills, most of us will receive guarded or politically correct feedback that is fairly useless in practice," he says. "Thoughtful and constructive feedback is a valuable thing."
So don't waste it when you get it. Take in the feedback with as much of an open mind as you can. Give yourself some time to think about it and evaluate whether it's helpful. Remember, it's ultimately up to you whether to act on feedback or not. But if you can give it serious consideration and look for ways it can help you do better, you'll be ahead of the game.