Hi, my name is Tom and I’m a talkaholic.” That’s right, if there were a support group for dialogue hogs I would’ve been a charter member. I used to see every conversation as a race — first one to get their point across wins. But cutting off a conversation without considering what the other person can offer is like tearing up a lottery ticket before the winning number is announced.
It never occurred to me that I was a lousy listener. Heck, listening was like breathing — I never thought about it, I just did it. My Aha! moment came at C. J. Hegarty’s “Active Listening” seminar in the mid-1980s. His theme: “Hearing is involuntary but listening is an acquired skill.” When it dawned on me that listening involved more than noticing noise emitting from a mouth, my transition to enlightened entrepreneur picked up steam.
Lousy listening wastes precious resources and damages relationships. How can we discipline an employee if we don’t listen — really listen — to her side of the story? How can we expect employees to nail deadlines if we don’t listen to their questions and concerns?
In small businesses, where people wear multiple hats, chase deadlines and move fast and talk faster, listening better be a core competency. Imagine what can be lost or misinterpreted in a simple exchange between two people of different genders, ages and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Knowing how to listen is a competitive edge you need.
Five listening lessons
Here are five things that will make you a better listener:
1) Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. These nine simple words, from the timeless prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, are powerful to behold. Challenging myself to view things through another person’s eyes expanded my powers of perception and deepened my connection to — and appreciation of — others. It was further proof that empathy trumps ego.
Another benefit: The more you listen, the better informed you are when it’s your turn to talk.
2) Be a human mirror. We expect colleagues to hang on our every word. Yet, if we don’t first listen to them — so we can lock onto their communication style and mirror it back to them — we might as well be speaking different languages.
For instance, if you’re brainstorming with a co-worker who thoughtfully chooses every word, your brilliant idea might zip by her if you spew sentences at the speed of light.
The same goes for decibel level; your pithy points may not register if you overwhelm her soft-spoken sensibilities with bluster.
3) Value the speaker as well as the speech. It’s easy for people to tell when their boss is listening against them instead of to them. A dead giveaway is the wall he throws up — leaning back in a chair and folding his arms across his chest. No matter what comes out of his mouth, all they’re going to hear is, I have nothing but contempt for you and your ideas. Stop wasting my time.
If this sounds like you, you won’t be crowned Mr. Motivation any time soon — people are certainly not going to share all their great ideas just to see them shot down. Conversely, a caring approach — a smile, leaning into the conversation, eye contact — lets employees know they’re taken seriously. The mindset is “What’s right with what she’s saying and how can I learn from it?” rather than “What’s wrong and how can I object to it?”
A leader who actively listens sets the tone for the entire department or company; people he listens to will listen to their people more carefully, and so on down the line.
4) Hear the unspoken. Subtle messages flow through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. That awareness came in handy during store visits when I queried customers about our service. I recall one typically over-polite Minnesotan who called the service “fine.” But her steady foot-tapping and the restless way she flipped through her magazine told a different story. So I pressed her. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Anything I can help you with?”
She paused, then confessed her car was 20 minutes overdue. Information in hand, we addressed the problem.
5) Repeat what you hear. Try not to ape the speaker, of course, but play back your interpretation of what you heard. Paraphrasing her message shows you listened carefully, and gives you both a chance to clear up miscommunication. (Remember that one of our deepest desires is to be heard.) Skipping this step can set off a chain reaction of misunderstanding that culminates in dented feelings and awkward apologies.
Active listening is grounded in courtesy, empathy and a desire for clarity at all costs. You don’t have to agree with what you hear. But your attentiveness and attitude speak the unspoken: I want to understand where you’re coming from. Tell me how you see this.
Practiced conscientiously, active listening engenders trust, reduces errors and encourages people to speak their mind.
The same dynamics apply to groups. My colleague Eric Randa left the company and returned four years later only to notice a distinct change around the conference table. “There had been a tendency for some executive committee members, including Tom, to go for the jugular,” recalled Eric. “It made people feel lousy and drove wedges between team members.”
Eric’s right. Thankfully, I wised up. I told the team that corrosive, vindictive behavior was no longer acceptable. I reminded them that our mission statement and operating values called for caring, respectful interactions.
Once Tom put a stop to that kind of behavior, things really turned around,” Eric said. “Nobody dreaded meetings anymore. We all realized that challenging each other in a professional way would help us all grow.” ■